John’s first epistle can make some of us uncomfortable. His use of stark contrasts and hyperbole doesn’t leave much room for shades of gray. For example, we can be either children of the devil who keep on sinning or children of God who practice righteousness (1Jn 3:9-10). Which one are you? According to John, you aren’t allowed to say a child of God who occasionally sins. He rarely permits that kind of exception.
Compare John’s style to that of his contemporaries, namely, Paul. Unlike John, Paul frequently acknowledges hypothetical arguments against his teachings and interjects potential caveats. After refuting antinomianism in his letter to the Romans, he spends half a chapter explaining that even slaves of God can serve the law of sin (Ro 6:22; 7:25). John, on the other hand, wants us to confess our sins, but never think that God’s born-again people will keep on sinning (1Jn 1:9; 3:6). In his theological equation, he doesn’t bother to include our perpetual wresting match with the flesh.
John’s rhetorical method may also give us trouble if we’re more accustomed to Paul’s linear approach. Paul is systematic in the way he builds a case point by point. His writings are so clear and smooth that we can almost picture the outline from which he worked.
John prefers circles over straight lines. In the first chapter, he declares, “This is the message” (1Jn 1:5). Then, he repeats himself in chapter three, saying, “For this is the message,” before starting all over again (1Jn 3:11). He’s redundant for the purpose of amplification. In case you didn’t understand the first time, let me explain it again using slightly different terms. In his first sermonette, God is light (1Jn 1:5). In the second, God is love (1Jn 4:8).
Regardless of style, 1 John has an explicit purpose. Ultimately, the apostle, and I do believe the author is none other than John the apostle, wants those who believe in the name of the Son of God to also know that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). He may tackle other subjects in this epistle such as antichrists and false prophets, but his primary audience is genuine Christians and his objective is to provide an assurance of salvation (1Jn 2:18; 4:1).
First John is essentially a follow-up to John’s Gospel. When he chronicled the life and ministry of the Messiah, he did so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).
Now that John is older and writing to second, possibly third-generation Christians, he feels it is his apostolic responsibility to instill confidence in these believers. Jesus has been gone fifty years. Greek philosophies and antithetical teachings are pouring into the church, slowly drowning the truth of the gospel. Nearing the end of the first century, John may be the only apostle left to remind everyone what they first believed and should still believe about Christ and his work.
If we were to chip away at the truth, removing just a piece here and there, our hope for eternal life would disappear with it. Deny the deity of Jesus, for instance, and he’s no longer qualified to be the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 2:2). Deny that Christ has come in the flesh, and we’re left with the same problem (1Jn 4:2). One error means he was not born without sin while the other implies he was not born under the law (Heb 4:15; Gal 4:4). Either way, we make Jesus a fraud and condemn ourselves all over again as though the Savior never came.
Augustine once said, “When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.” John sees the simple truths of the Christian faith becoming obscured by time and false brothers, leading to fears, doubts, and the loss of joy within the church.
Perhaps you remember playing the telephone game in school. The teacher would whisper a brief message into the ear of a student who whispered it to the kid next to him. As it made its way through the entire class, words got lost, replaced, and added. The class clown might intentionally tweak the message to prove his wit and make others laugh. By the time it reached the back row, the teacher could hardly recognize her original words in what she hears.
The church has played the telephone game for several decades now without the help of a complete New Testament to guide them. Vital points of doctrine aren’t as sharp as they used to be, and the church’s ethical vigor has grown weak. Antichrists have come into the church disguised as brethren, spreading lies using the devil’s subtle tactics, and went out again (1Jn 2:18-19). The last living apostle feels he must restore black-and-white clarity to the word of life, not to mention hope to those disturbed believers who have witnessed the exodus of their friends (1Jn 1:1). Will I be next? they wonder. Will I also depart from the faith? Am I truly saved?
John responds with a series of emphatic statements and absolute truths. Accuse him of dogmatism, and he’ll say, “Thank you for the compliment.” He refuses to make even the slightest concession, not that he should.
He also offers several tests by which professing Christians can, as Paul said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2Co 13:5). What do you believe about Jesus? How has he transformed your life? How do you feel about others in the church? These questions and John’s subsequent commentary move us to reflect on everything from our theology to our commitment to Christ. In turn, we find either assurance of our salvation or evidence that our faith is artificial.
Did I mention 1 John can make some of us uncomfortable?