The first letter from John was written around the time between 85–95 AD. This is the same John who was Jesus’ “beloved disciple”, who also wrote the Gospel of John and Revelation. The letter has two main themes: combating false teaching (most likely early Gnosticism), and assurance of salvation.
- 1:1–4 Introduction
- 1:5–2:11 Matching words and actions
- 1:5–10 Light and darkness
- 2:1–6 Sin and redemption
- 2:7–11 An old/new command
- 2:12–17 Advice from a “father” to his “children”
- 2:18–3:12 Deceivers
- 2:18–25 Antichrists
- 2:26–3:12 How children of God stand against them
- 3:13–15 Hatred and murder
- 3:16–5:5 True love
- 3:16–19a Love in action
- 3:19b–24a Confidence before God
- 3:24b–4:6 Test the spirits
- 4:7–11 To love God is to love people
- 4:12–18 Perfect love
- 4:19–5:5 Fake love
- 5:6–12 Three witnesses
- 5:13–15 Assurance of salvation
- 5:16–18 Praying for other believers
- 5:19–21 The True One versus false ones
John has a different way of expressing himself than most of the other New Testament writers. He seems to be more abstract, philosophical, and poetic. This is evident in the very first verse, where he describes Jesus as “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard and seen and touched”. This is evidence from personal testimony. Although he is writing to believers, there is no harm in continually giving reasons for our faith. Further, Jesus is described as having come “from the Father”— not beneath him or apart from him. And the purpose of testimony and evidence (apologetics) is to convince people that Jesus is God who died for our sins and rose again.
1:5–2:11 Matching words and actions
Now John focuses on practicing what we preach.
1:5–10 Light and darkness
Since God is light, then to live in darkness yet claim to be saved is a lie. And to say we don’t sin is another lie. On the surface this seems contradictory: how can anyone claim to be saved since we all sin? The answer is that there is a difference between living in sin and occasional lapses.
2:1–6 Sin and redemption
The purpose of writing encouraging letters to believers is not to keep them saved, but to keep them from falling into sin. But even if we fall, Jesus is there to pick us up. He is our Defense Attorney against Satan, and he never loses.
Notice who it is that Jesus takes sin away from: the whole world. Is John teaching Universalism, that everyone will go to heaven? Absolutely not. Jesus removed the barrier between God and man, which was put up due to Adam’s rebellion, making salvation by faith possible. One person cannot force reconciliation with another, but they can offer it, and this is what God did through Jesus. So though God took the sin barrier away, each person must decide whether or not to accept the offer to reconcile. Thus our destiny in either heaven or hell is not determined by sin, but by faith. Sin has to do with wages earned (Rom. 6:23), but salvation has to do with faith, which is not a work (Rom. 4:5, 5:6-7, 11:6, Eph. 2:8-9).
So when John says Jesus takes away our sin, he is referring to it on two levels: the sin barrier of all mankind which Jesus removed, and the individual sins believers commit that cause us to lose rewards. These rewards can be regained through repentance, but we must be more motivated by restoring our closeness with God than with rewards. It’s all about the Relationship.
Is John advocating salvation by works, as James has been accused also? Not at all. John is not telling us to judge each other’s salvation, but to judge our own. He is telling us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we can justify wallowing in any sin while claiming to be saved. This is yet another good reason for him to keep talking about salvation, since not all who think they are saved are truly saved. Instead, as we see in vs. 5-6, works are a visible indication of maturity. A disciple is supposed to act like their master.
2:7–11 An old/new command
Our behavior is summed up in a command which John describes as both old and new: love your neighbor. We cannot both love and hate a person, so if we despise anyone, we do not have the love of God in us, and we should therefore take a good look at our spiritual condition. Again, this is not a weapon with which we should beat other believers over the head, but a mirror.
2:12–17 Advice from a “father” to his “children”
Here we see John wax poetic about the reasons for this letter. Some people try to extract doctrine out of this passage, as if only young men are strong and can overcome the evil one. It’s just poetry.
Not loving the world doesn’t mean not ever enjoying anything, but simply not giving it priority over our relationship with Jesus or our real home in heaven. This is especially important as we near the Master’s return.
Some take this passage to mean that there is no person we can call The Antichrist, since John mentions many antichrists. But the fact that an individual is mentioned means there are both. The Greek from which we get “antichrist” means not only one who opposes Christ but who also impersonates him. He will be a fake Christ. In the meantime, there are many fake Christs with limited followings, which is itself one of the signs of the end. But from other scriptures we can be sure that there will be an ultimate and final Antichrist.
Such impostors can’t remain for long among believers who are mature disciples. John makes it clear that these people were never saved. Some add “as if” to the verse, changing it to “the fact that they left makes it just as if they were never saved.” John does not say “as if”, but states as a fact that those who leave were never saved in the first place. And remember the context of false teachers; it is these who are called “antichrists”.
Notice that John says he’s not writing to get the people saved but to remind them to practice what they preach: anyone who denies that Jesus is the Messiah is “the antichrist”. Again, as John had just said, “just as you heard that an impostor Anointed is coming, now also many such fakes have come”. There is one Antichrist to come, but in the meantime there are many, and a given Antichrist can be identified by whether they deny that Jesus is the Messiah.
To have the Son is to also have the Father; they are one. Later John will elaborate on this, adding that whoever doesn’t have the Son also doesn’t have the Father. Many cults try to only keep one or the other, but John makes it clear that we must have both. And this also includes Jews. Some say they need not be evangelized because they worship the One True God, but remember what Peter said on Pentecost (Acts 2): the Jews had to accept their Messiah. That is where the line is drawn now, for all people.
Again John tells us that he is writing all this to keep us aware of false teachers. Jesus can return suddenly at any time, and we need to be sure we’re saved and growing to maturity, so that we will not be embarrassed when he comes.
2:26–3:12 How children of God stand against them
All who are saved are born as God’s children. Not servants or enemies, but children. Because of this, we will someday be made like him and see him as he really is. We are to set our hope on him, not on us, and we must not give up this hope. Keeping it helps to purify us.
To sin is to break God’s law. This of course is not the Old Testament law, but the law John wrote about earlier: love your neighbor. Since love does no harm to its neighbor (Rom. 13:10) and sin does, then sin breaks this law. If we continue to live in sin then we have never known Jesus.
Satan has done nothing but sin, but Jesus destroyed his work. In light of that, it should be clear that to continue following in Satan’s footsteps indicates one who is not saved. Since we can’t see the heart as God does, outward behavior is all we have to go on.
Does this violate scriptures about people being saved but having no works? Not at all. There is a vast difference between doing nothing and living in sin. Yes, it’s a sin to fail to do right (James 4:17), but such people are not committing evil acts like murder. Satan doesn’t sit around and do nothing! But instead of seeing how little good we can do, we should see how much good we can do, out of love for God and people.
3:13–15 Hatred and murder
We can expect the world to hate us for Whose we are, but not other believers. So again, anyone claiming Jesus must not hate people. Instead, love for people is expressed in Jesus’ laying down his life for us. Although most of us will never be required to do that, there is much we will be expected to do, such as sharing our material goods and showing compassion.
3:16–5:5 True love
3:16–19a Love in action
It’s better to never say “I love you” and do loving acts than to say the words but never back them up with action.
3:19b–24a Confidence before God
The conscience is not terribly reliable among lost people, but among believers it should help us stay the course. We are to keep believing and keep loving, and our conscience will be clear. But it is God’s power and the indwelling Holy Spirit that keep our faith for us (1 Peter 1:3-5); he gives us the ability to obey this command to keep believing.
3:24b–4:6 Test the spirits
This is one of the most important but most ignored verses in scripture: test the spirits. One test is to see if a teaching agrees that Jesus the Messiah came from God in human form. The Gnostics were teaching against this in John’s day, and they’re still teaching it today. Other religions such as Islam deny that Jesus was God and that he was crucified for our sins. So those who are trying to say we worship the same God as Islam are speaking blasphemy. Many Christians are so afraid of rejecting what comes from God as did the Pharisees, that they refuse to question anyone claiming to be of God and speaking the name of Jesus. But we are not to be gullible, since it is as wrong to accept the fake as it is to reject the genuine.
We must test the spirits, and we must know how to tell true from false. So discernment is like an open window with a screen: it lets in the fresh air but keeps out the bugs.
We believers are said to have had the victory over false teachers. It’s in the past tense, and it’s all because the One who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world. To say that we are capable of being lost is to say the Spirit in us is powerless against Satan. Instead, this Spirit is “the spirit of truth” which guards us against “the spirit of deception”. All we have to do is listen carefully.
4:7–11 To love God is to love people
Again John emphasizes the need for believers to put love into practice. Perhaps it was a problem to the people he was writing to. He appeals to the love God showed to us in sending Jesus to save us. He loved us first, while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:8). Jesus referred to this when he said “If you only love those who love you, what credit is that to you? After all, the deviant only love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32). But God loved humanity while we were still his enemies, so we too must try to express love to people.
But note that love is not always gentle and nurturing. God says that he rebukes and disciplines those he loves (Rev. 3:19). And it’s certainly not loving toward the victim if we do nothing to oppose the criminal. Love “always protects” (1 Cor. 13), and sometimes this requires strong opposition to evildoers.
4:12–18 Perfect love
Even though we haven’t actually seen God, his love lives in us if we show it to others. God’s love is not anything to be feared, since he will never throw us away. But he will discipline us if we stray, so it’s only sensible to strive to practice love.
4:19–5:5 Fake love
As if to give us a hint that this is important, John repeats his statements about the impossibility of loving God yet hating people. After all, if we can’t love people we can see, then how can we love God whom we can’t see? Faith in God is our only means of victory over the sinful world, specifically faith in Jesus as the Anointed.
5:6–12 Three witnesses
What’s all this about “water and blood”? One theory is that John is combating a Gnostic heresy that Jesus was only divine when the Holy Spirit came upon him at his baptism, and that it left him before his death. They believed this because they could not accept God in the flesh. Jesus was a mere man to them, who only had the divine presence for a limited time. So when John says “water and blood” he refers to the fact that Jesus was not only divine at his baptism, but all the way through his death.
Another view is that water refers to Jesus’ physical birth (as in the context of his conversation with Nicodemas) while blood refers to his physical death. That would make John’s meaning to be that Jesus was physically born and physically died. He further bolsters this testimony with that of the Holy Spirit for a third witness. This view makes better sense in light of the more general Gnostic teaching that Jesus was never human at all, but only appeared to be. And this follows his statement about the saved being those who believe this.
So we have God’s own testimony that Jesus is his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life. That again supports the statement that it is our faith in Jesus that saves us, not repentance from sin or doing good works.
5:13–15 Assurance of salvation
In verse 13 John says that he writes these things “to you so you can understand that you have eternal life, you who put your trust in the Name of the God-Man.” Believers can rest assured that eternal life is already ours. John is giving this assurance to people who are already saved. So if someone is not sure they’re saved, we can’t declare them lost, but instead should reassure them that if they have believed that Jesus is God in the flesh who died for our sins and rose again, they already have possession of eternal life.
Some may object, “This teaches a license to sin and gives people a false sense of security.” But that’s not true; liberty is not license, and our confidence is not false. Instead it is sure because it is in Jesus, not in ourselves. We should make every effort to silence those who falsely teach that salvation can be lost and rob believers of their confidence. As Paul taught, we have died to sin. And if we are truly reconciled with God, we will naturally want to please him.
Is the statement about asking anything of God a “blank check” that any Christian can cash? Hardly. John is just saying that if we ask anything according to God’s will, we’ll get it. How do we know what things are according to God’s will? By whether or not he grants them. One might then wonder what the purpose is of praying, but there may be things God would have granted had we asked for them.
5:16–18 Praying for other believers
What is the “sin that leads to death”? In Paul’s writings, and also in the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), we see that God will go so far as to punish his own people with premature death for continued disobedience or for lying to the Holy Spirit. It’s possible that this lying to the Spirit is the particular sin John is talking about. But notice that we are told not to pray about it. There are apparently some things God doesn’t want us to try to change his mind about.
5:19–21 The True One versus false ones
At the end, John repeats some points, then makes a quick warning against idols. It seems somewhat out of place but really isn’t. John has been warning against false teachings and teachers who were leading people astray. Such turning away from the one true God toward other so-called gods is idolatry. John spent a great deal of effort to divide light from darkness, truth from error, Christ from Antichrist, so his last statement is simply a command to stay alert.