Overview of the Book of 1 John


Overview of the Book of 1 John

Author: The author is the Apostle John.


To warn against the false teaching that Christ had not actually come in the flesh and to encourage a lifestyle appropriate for followers of the incarnate Christ.

Date: A.D. 85-95

Key Truths:

  • Receiving salvation from God results in righteous living, and especially in love for fellow believers.
  • Jesus was fully human.
  • Many who claim to follow Christ are not true followers.
  • Believers must be ready to examine themselves to see whether their faith in Christ is genuine.
  • Full assurance of salvation is appropriate for those whose lives give evidence that they are living for Christ.


First John is so similar to the fourth Gospel in style, diction and content that it may almost certainly be attributed to the same author. For this reason, conclusions about the authorship of 1 John depend on the conclusions reached about the author of the fourth Gospel (see "Introduction to John: Author"). While both writings are anonymous, their traditional ascription to John, son of Zebedee, cannot be disproved. The emphasis in the opening verse on authoritative proclamation and eyewitness testimony is most naturally seen as a reflection of John's apostolic calling (John 19:35; 20:3-8; 21:24 ).

Time and Place of Writing:

The recognition that 1 John may be John's apostolic legacy passed on near the end of his life (see "Purpose and Distinctives") puts its date in the last two decades of the first century (c. A.D. 85-95). A number of evidences suggest that 1 John was written after the Gospel of John. First, the density of its references to ideas that are unfolded more clearly and fully in the Gospel of John strongly suggests that the author presupposed that the readers were familiar with the Gospel of John. Second, the conflict with Docetism is absent from the Gospel of John and appears to be a later development. Third, the thematic parallels between 1 John and the Gospel of John show another significant difference: There is no hint in 1 John of the conflict with "the Jews" that pervades the first half of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John reflects the painful separation of the Christian community as the people of God distinct from the Jewish people, but 1 John reflects a period in the life of the church after that separation had become established.

Other indications for a first-century date for 1 John come by comparison with the letters of Ignatius and the letter of Polycarp (all from the second century). These writings reflect a struggle against false teachings that are similar to, but more developed than, those addressed in 1 John. This confirms that 1 John should be dated in the first century.

Original Audience:

John probably wrote to a specific group of Christians with whom he had a close relationship, but their precise identity is unknown (see "Purpose and Distinctives").

Purpose and Distinctives:

In general terms, 1 John was written to hand down the fruits of a life's work to the next generation. Beyond this, 1 John's specific purpose was to warn and instruct its readers against a false teaching denying that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh (1 John 4:2-3). Several forms of this teaching, commonly known as "Docetism," existed in early Christian history. Some Docetists believed that Christ the Savior was a divine spirit that began to inhabit the man Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism but left him just before the crucifixion. Others held that Jesus himself was only a spirit who appeared to be human and to undergo human experiences (e.g., suffering and death). A wide range of additional views also existed between these two extremes.

Some scholars think that this false teaching can be identified more precisely as a variety of Gnosticism, a religious attitude that connected salvation with an experience of individual, esoteric revelation - or more precisely still, as the teaching of the late-first-century teacher Cerinthus. Cerinthus was certainly identified by later writers as both Gnostic and Docetic, but there is little in 1 John to connect the false teaching with the specific ideas attributed to Cerinthus; in fact, there is little to identify the fallacious teaching as Gnostic. Beyond the fact that John was targeting his remarks against Docetism, few details about the controversy are evident.

Although 1 John has traditionally been regarded as a letter, it lacks normal features of that genre (salutation, introductory greeting, final greeting). On the other hand, John addressed the readers as his "dear children" (1 John 2:1, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21), indicating that he was writing to a specific group of people with whom he had a close relationship. In its basic purposes of admonition and instruction, 1 John is similar to most of the New Testament letters.

It may be better to describe 1 John as John's "testament." It contains the three key elements of a testament: review of the testator's life, ethical exhortation, and predictions and warnings about the future (cf. 1 Sam. 12; Acts 20:18-35). John's review of his life focuses on his faithfulness to his apostolic commission (Acts 20:20-21; 1 John 1:1-3), and his distinctive use of the present tense draws the act of writing this very book into the review of his ministry (1 John 1:4). John's exhortations include the admonition to serve the true God and to shun idolatry (1 Sam. 12:14-15; 1 John 2:3-5) - especially in the light of the example of Jesus (1 John 2:6). John highlights confession of sin and the resultant blessings (1 Sam. 12:10-11; 1 John 1:9).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.