Understanding why John wrote the book of 1 John

In Mexico we have translation workshops three to four times a year on either different books of the Bible or different aspects of translation. The workshops are aimed at believers in different villages in Mexico who are translating the Bible into their own language. There are over 300 languages in Mexico and at least 70 translations in process, villages that do not have published Scripture in their own language. People who have the vision to help translate God’s Word for their own people have a number of different avenues to get training to do this long and difficult job, and this training includes attending any of these translation workshops. Over the years I have been involved both in attending these workshops and in helping to teach them. I have also been a translation consultant for a number of years, helping different translation teams to improve their work and impact their people for the glory of God.

From September 14 thru October 2, 2020, I helped teach a workshop on the Epistles of John. We usually hold such workshops “live” in Mexico, but because of the issues surrounding COVID and being unable to meet in-person at a workshop site, this workshop was held on-line, using both the internet meeting program Zoom and a Facebook “group” page, where we posted important information about the books. The workshop included around 20 participants from six different languages.

As a result of the months of preparation for the workshop, I learned a lot of new things about 1 John which I shared with the teams, and I would like to share some of these new insights here. 1 John can teach us a lot about the truth and standing firm with the truth. Something I did not realize before, the book also focuses a lot on believers having an intimate relationship with God, and John uses around twelve distinct phrases to emphasize that. Click https://youtu.be/cqBxEWnymaQ to watch a video presentation of this topic.

Why is John writing as he does, and who are the recipients?

John is thought to be most likely writing from Ephesus, and his recipients would probably include, not only those in Ephesus, but also the other six churches he writes to in the book of Revelation, as well as others. His main reason for writing to them seems to be because of a major heresy, a false teaching that was infiltrating the churches, a teaching that was undermining all the basic truths about Jesus that John and other apostles and faithful servants had shared with those churches. This was mainly Gnosticism, a teaching which declared that all material things, the things of this world, were bad and everything spiritual was good. The name comes from the Greek word gnosis, “to know”, and taught that the most important thing one can do is to obtain a higher level “mystical” knowledge of God. Because of the insistence that everything material is bad, this led to a lot of false teachings about Jesus. The Bible clearly states that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus was born Emanuel, God with us, when He was born. He died on the cross and rose again, living His whole life as one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man. But the Gnostics rejected all this because they taught that God and material things, the things of this world, do not mix, so it only “appeared” that Jesus had a body. I will talk more about Gnosticism throughout this paper and how John refutes it.

John starts right off debunking Gnostic claims about Jesus

John starts his book taking this issue of Jesus being God and coming in the flesh head on. When John wrote this book around the year 85, he may have been the last living apostle, the last living eye-witness to all that Jesus said and did. So he is not speculating or giving second-hand information. He lived this! He has personal experience with Jesus! He seems so intent on sharing the truth about Jesus that he jumps right into his argument, forgoing all the usual niceties of starting a letter. “That which was from the beginning” is a rather abrupt and unique way to start. John is on a mission to begin making his case as soon as possible. He continues this way through verse 3: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 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.” John proclaims: I lived with Him for three years! I saw and watched Him! I heard Him teach! I talked with him! I touched His human body! I ate with Him! This is up-close, first-hand, personal knowledge I am proclaiming to you! When he says “that which”, he is referring not only to Jesus, but the message about Jesus, the truth about Jesus, about Who He truly is: God in the flesh, the Word of Life, the Eternal Life.

John starts out his Gospel in a similar way, using the same words: “beginning”, “life”, and “the Word” instead of “that which”. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” 1 John begins talking about light in 1:5.

From the very first verses of 1 John, John is beginning to undermine, to refute the false teachings of the Gnostics. Jesus, God in the flesh, was a real person. The idea that he only “appeared” to be a person is a lie! Basically every verse in John either refutes a false teaching about Jesus or affirms a truth about Him, and how to live a life according to God’s commands.

A summary of the Gnostic lies John is refuting

Let us look at the basic lies the Gnostics were teaching at that time, and then examine some of the verses from 1 John which refute these lies. As already mentioned, the false teaching which mostly leads to lies about Jesus is that all material things are bad, that only spiritual things are good, thus the only important thing is to obtain a mystical knowledge of God. According to this, the indication of a true follower of God is not how people live or even what they believe about Jesus, it is all about obtaining this higher level knowledge of God. They were very selfish and proud because they claimed to have obtained this higher knowledge, and all those who hadn’t are lower level followers of God. As we will see in a moment, John talks about the importance of knowing God in his book in at least twelve different verses. Knowing God is not something “mystical” for John, for true knowledge of God shows itself in obeying His commands, something which is completely irrelevant to the Gnostics.

Since the Gnostics believed all material things are evil, this led them to declare that God, who is completely separate from anything material, did not, or could not have created the world. They believed a smaller, demi-god created the world.

This rejection of all things material led to all kinds of strange beliefs about Jesus. He could not have come from God, He was not God’s Son, nor the Christ. He could not have inhabited a human body, He could not have been born as a baby, He could not have died, He does not have a resurrected body, nor can anyone who knows God have a resurrected body. This idea that Jesus came in the flesh as God made no sense to them, it flew in the face of their corrupted logic. God could never inhabit a material body. In 4:2-3 John confronts this lie and makes perfectly clear who Jesus is: “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

The idea that He only “appeared” to have a body led to the Gnostics and other groups’ false teaching about what happened when Jesus was baptized. They believed that there was a man named Jesus who lived a normal life for thirty years, then at baptism the Spirit of Christ came upon this person and right before this Jesus person was crucified, this Spirit of Christ left Him. This means that this human Jesus was not God, nor anyone special when he was born, nor as He was growing up. It means that He died as a normal person, not as God, and that was end of this person named Jesus. But John declares that Jesus was born God and that He died as God, concepts that are hard for us to wrap our minds around, and complete nonsense to the Gnostics.

1 John 5:5-7 is one of the places John explains this: “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”  While on the surface this seems like a rather strange and complicated argument, it is directly refuting claims made by the Gnostics. Jesus is of God, verse 5 says He is the Son of God. And how do we know for sure that He is the Son of God? Three testify to this: water, blood and the Spirit.  Some commentators think water refers to baptism to confront the false beliefs about baptism and because of the testimony of the Spirit when Jesus was baptized. It is also possible that John is thinking about what he wrote in John 19:34-35, when he is the only Gospel writer to record that Jesus bled water and blood, seeing that as an important detail and fulfilling Scripture: 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesusʼ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” Water and blood together prove that Jesus really died, and died as God in the flesh.

I will also posit here that the reference to water probably also testifies that He was born human. One of the principle evidences John uses to show that Jesus is human is that He was born human, of a woman. And the image he uses for that is water. The 1 John 5 passage is not the only place John uses “water” when referring to birth and seeing it as a testimony that Jesus is both man and God, and accompanying that by emphasizing that the Spirit also gives this testimony. John 3:5-6: “5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” The water Jesus is referring to here is birth, the “natural” person, being born like everyone else, flesh giving birth to flesh. And by contrast, to be born again, we need to be born “of the Spirit.”  He uses contrasts continually to get his point across. The other two witnesses in 1 John 5 passage are pretty clear: Blood testifies that He died being the Son of God, the Spirit also testifies to the fact that He is fully human and that He is the Son of God.

The word “truth” appears at least eleven times in the book.  He contrasts that truth with the lies mentioned so far, lies which always diminish who Jesus is. His goal is to proclaim the truth about Jesus, to confront all these lies about Him and to encourage the believers to stand form with the truth. As is the case with the Gnostics, so today there are many false beliefs about Jesus, and they affect how people live, they affect their lives, they affect if and how the Holy Spirit can lead and transform them. When we truly know who Jesus is, know and accept the truth about Him, and have been born again, this will have a direct affect on how we conduct ourselves, how we shall live.

Gnostics said that they had no sin

This ties into yet another false teaching of the Gnostics, that it does not matter at all how we live, what matters is obtaining this mystical knowledge of God. John begins to deal with this issue in the very first chapter. After using his introduction to proclaim his personal experience of Jesus being truly God in the flesh, he says that if we truly we know God, that He is light, we must also walk in the light, as He has directed us. He then spends the next number of verses talking about those who deny that they sin (people who walk in darkness, in willful ignorance in regards to what God has commanded). How can anyone who knows anything about God and Jesus, and even human life, deny that they sin? The Gnostics! They refused to call anything they did sin, since how they lived was irrelevant. But John proclaims that anyone who says they have not sinned are deceived, do not have the truth in them, and are calling God a liar. Jesus dealt with a similar situation with the Pharisees, who acted and talked like they were very religious, but Jesus said that their hearts were far from God. Even today many people separate, compartmentalize their religious “belief” from how they act in their everyday life, so this is not anything new. 2:4 is the key verse related to this lie: “The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Remain faithful. Do not be led away by the lies and pressure

John is stating over and over to the believers who had thus far remained faithful: Know the truth, know Jesus and who He is, hold tightly onto that and it will have a profound affect on how you live. You can do it because you are of the light, God is in you, you are born of God, you have His Spirit, etc.

Apparently these false teachers came to the churches John is writing to, or maybe even some of the attendees learned these false teachings in other places and began teaching them in the churches. They proclaimed the need to seek and obtain this higher knowledge about God, that all material things are bad, thus undermining the truths about Jesus, probably even redefining what sin was. These false teachings would have lead to a division within the churches, especially as those faithful leaders in charge confronted these lies. The “enlightened” false teachers then led away those they were able to deceive to go and congregate with them elsewhere. In 2:18-19 John bemoans this situation, even calling these false teachers antichrists: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

Many people left the congregation. But there is no doubt that they still had some contact with the faithful believers and would continue to try and convince them how wrong they were, and they should also leave and unite with them and seek the true knowledge of God, to renounce material things, and their false beliefs about Jesus and sin, to follow doctrines hatched in the minds of confused men.

It is into this context that John writes his letters. John, who does not make stuff up, but is an eye-witness to all that Jesus was and said. One who could affirm the truth that they had heard from the beginning, and to assure them that this is the true path to pleasing God and to eternal life.

The following is a list of the lies and some of the verse where John refutes them:

1. saying they have no sin (1:6,8,10)

2. saying they know God, but not obeying Him (2:4)

3. denying that Jesus is the Christ (2:22, 5:1, 5:5)

4. denying that Jesus is the Son of God (4:15, 5:5)

5. denying that Jesus came in the flesh (4:2, 2Jn 7)

6. denying that Jesus came by water and the blood  (5:6-9)

7. denying the importance of obeying the commands of God (2:4)

8. not loving one another

9. saying they possess a “higher” knowledge (2:20,27)

10. saying they are guided by the Holy Spirit (4:1)

The if/then construction in 1 John

Another feature of 1 John is that one half of all the verses in the book contain an if/then clause. Just look at chapter 1:6-10: “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” All of the if/then constructions in 1 John are John refuting lies the believers are hearing and affirming truths John and other faithful ones had taught them previously. I will put a list of all of the if/then constructions at the end.

Twelve phrases which refer to our intimate relationship with God

A very important thing I learned about 1 John that I had not realized before were all the phrases John uses to talk about our intimate relationship with God. I found that there are at least twelve different ones of these in the book, and they indicate a strong contrast to the selfish doctrine of the Gnostics, their headlong pursuit of this mystical knowledge of God while ignoring who He truly is and ignoring all the things He has commanded us to do. Over and over John proclaims that because of this intimate relationship we have with God. we will be filled with an overwhelming desire to truly know Him and to obey Him. John says that these false teachers say that they know God so deeply, but they really don’t. We are the ones who truly know God, because those who truly know Him will have the desire and the power to obey His commands, to do what pleases Him. In fact, John starts out saying that he is writing all these things so that we all might have fellowship with one another and with God. Koinonia, the first of the twelve relationship phrases John uses, refers to an intimate union, a oneness of heart, a deep fellowship that affects everything that we say and do, and even think.

I will put my list of the twelve relational phrases with a representative verse for each one below, but let me highlight two more of them. Remain (used twelve times) is fundamental because John is writing this to people who are being intimidated and coerced to give up the truth and follow the lies of the Gnostics. John encourages them to remain in God, to remain in the truth that they have been taught from the beginning. Do not stray, do not be deceived. Remain in God!

The other one is born of God. John talks a lot about this in the Gospel of John, that we are his children, not because of physical birth, but a spiritual  birth, a rebirth. He is our Father and we are His children, we are His seed, His desires are in us. 3:9 is a key verse: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.” This verse seems almost contradictory because John has already said that those who say they have no sin are liars. Almost every time “sin” appears in John, it is as a participle in Greek, “sinning.” We are still human and may at times sin, but we do not habitually sin, we have the Holy Spirit in us to keep us from that. We also have a different attitude than the Gnostics. They could care less about sin, but those of us who truly know God, when we sin, we will be repentant, we will follow John’s advice and confess our sin, and He will forgive us through what Jesus has done. We must hate sin, and never let if become entrenched in our lives and become accustomed to it.

1. have fellowship with Him koinonia  1:3, 1:6 (2)1:6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.
2. –to know Him2:3, 2:4, 2:5, 2:13, 2:14, 2:29, 3:6, 4:6, 4:7, 4:8, 4:13, 5:20 (12)2:3: We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
3. –He is in you2:5, 2:25, 4:4:  5:20 (4)4:4: You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.
4. –remain in the Father and the Son (menei, menete)  2:6, 2:14, 2:24, 2:27, 2:28, 3:6, 3:9, 3:24, 4:12, 4:13, 4:15, 4:16 (12)2:24: See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father.
5. –have the love of God in you2:15 (1)2:15: Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
6. –Have the annointing of the Holy Spirit2:20, 2:27 (2)2:20:  But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
7. –to have the Father/Son2:23, 5:12 (2)5:12: He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
8. –born of God gennaō  2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1, 5:4, 5:18 (5)3:9: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
9. –We are His children3:1, 3:2, :310 (3)3:2: Dear friends, now we are children of God,
10. Mutual love  3:1, 3:16, 3:17, 4:9,  4:10, 4:11, 4:12,  4:16 4:17-19, 5:2, 5:3 (12)4:19: We love because he first loved us.
11. –We shall be like Him3:2b (1)3:3: But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
12. –We are from God3:10, 4:2, 4:4, 4:6, 5:19 (5)4:4: We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

In conclusion, John is sharing a lot of basic truths about Jesus, is refuting the lies of the Gnostics and encouraging the believers to stand firm with the truth and to live out their intimate relationship with God. John is a primer from an eye-witness of what is the truth, and how then shall we live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because we are born of Him, because He is in us, and we “have” Him and remain in Him, we will want to follow Him and desire to do what pleases Him. Those who have been deceived and are following false teachings have none of these things.

Two final thoughts. Near the end of John 5, he speaks of the “sin that leads to death.” There have been many ideas and speculations about what sin that may be. I posit that based on all that John has said, and the Gnostic lies he has confronted, that the sin that leads to death is accepting all these lies about Jesus: That He did not come in the flesh, that He is not the Son of God, that He is not the Christ, etc., and as we have seen, these false beliefs lead to a life of sin and selfishness. In a real sense the Gnostics are seeking to know a completely different God. Since the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and since these lies reject the testimony of the Spirit, we can also posit that we could summarize the “sin that leads to death” as blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but with the idea of blaspheming Him by denying the truths about Jesus that John has presented here.

John ends the book as abruptly as he started it. 5:21: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” Why is he talking about idols? Here I posit that the Gnostic conception of God is not at all like how the true God is, and that Gnosticism is in itself idol workshop, the warped idea of men about how to “know” God. John’s plea to keep themselves from idols is a plea to keep themselves from the lies of Gnosticism, from a selfish concept of God (and Jesus) that is nothing at all like the true God.

The following is a list of all the verses in 1 John which contain the if/then construction or idea:

1 Jn.If (105-50)ButThenOther benefits/problems
1:6we claim to have fellowship with Himwalk in the darknesswe lieand do not live by the truth
1:7we walk in the light as He is in the light,we have fellowship with one anotherand the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin.
1:8we claim to be without sin,we deceive ourselvesand the truth is not in us.
1:9we confess our sins,He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sinsand purify us from all unrighteousness
1:10we claim we have not sinned,we make Him out to be a liarand His word has no place in our lives.
2:3if we obey His commands.*We know that we have come to know Him
2:4The man who says, “I know him,”but does not do what He commandsis a liarand the truth is not in him.
2:5But if anyone obeys His word,Godʼs love is truly made complete in him
2:6Whoever claims to live in Himmust walk as Jesus did.
2:9Anyone who claims to be in the lightbut hates his brotheris still in the darkness.
2:10Whoever loves his brotherlives in the light,and there is nothing in him to make him stumble
2:11But whoever hates his brotheris in the darkness and walks around in the darkness;he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
2:15bIf anyone loves the world,the love of the Father is not in him.
2:19For if they had belonged to us,they would have remained with us;but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
2:22If someone denies that Jesus is the Christhe is a liar and antichristfor he denies the Father and the Son.
2:23If you deny the Sonyou do not have the Father
2:23If you acknowledge the Sonyou have the Father
2:24If what you have heard from the beginning remains in youyou also will remain in the Son and in the Father.

Others: 3:6, 3:7-10 3:14-16, 3:17, 3:19-21, 3:24, 4:2-3, 4:6, 4:7-8, 4:11-12, 4:13, 4:15-16: 4:20-21, 5:1-5, 5:9-10, 5:12, 5:14-16ª, 5:18