While serving as a seminary Professor of Homiletics, I assigned sermons to students based upon texts from various books of the Bible. We always took class time to discuss the assigned book. In particular, we zeroed in on the purpose of the book. If the writer gives a specific purpose statement, we took a hard look at it. If the writer does not state a purpose, we undertook a study to determine the purpose and formulate such a statement. In doing so, we recognized that an author might have many reasons for writing. However, what we sought was the primary purpose of a given book.
Why is identifying the primary purpose of a book of the Bible so important? A book’s purpose acts as a lens through which to view each section of the book. This lens offers the proper perspective on individual pieces of the book. Using the comparison of a well-cut diamond, the various parts of a biblical book present different facets of the book’s content. A diamond has many facets or faces. Each facet shows a different face of the beauty of the stone. Similarly, each piece of a well-written letter, paper, or story, adds substance and depth to the central theme or purpose of the story. As a result, knowing the meaning of individual parts of a letter, paper, or story, depends upon understanding its primary purpose as a whole.
First John was one of the books I used in my preaching classes. Some thought that the concepts 1 John raises are difficult and often confusing. I don’t see it this way. If we take the primary purpose of 1 John seriously, the difficulties melt away. If we look at the various sections of 1 John through the lens of its primary purpose, clarity emerges. Problems arise when we fail to use John’s purpose as a primary guidepost. So, what is the purpose of this little book?
As is true for the Gospel of John, 1 John gives us its purpose. The Apostle John wrote his gospel for evangelistic purposes. “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31). He wrote 1 John, his tract or paper, to foster assurance. He wrote to believers to encourage them in the experimental knowledge of their eternal life in Christ. “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
That this statement sets forth John’s principal purpose seems clear. To be sure, I review the statements of several commentators speaking to 1 John 5:13. First, consider John Calvin (1551), “There should be daily progress in faith; and so he says that he is writing to those who already believed, so that they might believe more firmly and certainly, and thus enjoy a full confidence of eternal life” (p. 307). B. F. Wescott (1883) says, “The Apostle looks back upon his work, and records the aim which he set before himself” (p. 188). The Expositor’s Greek Testament (1961) records this comment, “The purpose for which St. John wrote his gospel was that we might believe in the Incarnation, and so have eternal life (xx. 31); the purpose of the Epistle is not merely that we may have Eternal Life by believing but that we may know that we have it” (p. 5:197, italics original). John R. W. Stott (1960) adds,
The Epistle was written … that ye may know that ye have eternal life … The Gospel was written for unbelievers, that they might read the testimony of God to His Son, believe in the Son to whom the testimony pointed, and thus receive life through faith. The Epistle, on the other hand, was written for believers. John’s desire for them is not that they may believe and receive, but having believed, they may know that they have received … (p. 184, italics Stott’s).
I Howard Marshall (1978) comments on John 5:13 as follows, “We are fortunate that John has given us in his gospel a statement of purpose in writing it (Jn. 20:31). In the same way, he here summarizes his purpose in the composition of this epistle” (p. 243). A few sentences later, Marshall adds, “John now sums up by saying that the effect of what he has written should be to give assurance to believers that they do possess eternal life” (p. 243). Finally, in the Word Biblical Commentary, Stephen S. Smalley (2008) indicates that 1 John 5:13 “states one of the aims lying behind 1 John as a whole” (p. 276). Although this may be the case, Smalley states that “the primary intention of 1 John can still be delineated as the instruction and encouragement of the faithful” (xxix). In his comments under 5:13, Smalley adds, “In favor of this view is the close parallel existing between v. 13 and John 20:31 where the writer sets out the purpose of the Fourth Gospel” (p. 277).
Again, the purpose statement of 1 John is a lens through which to examine and properly apply sections of the book. Here is an example. First John 1:3-4 relates a secondary purpose. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete.” Fellowship is an essential aspect of our jointly held Christian faith, as is our fellowship with the Father through and with Jesus Christ, the Son. This fellowship precipitates joy, a fruit of the Spirit. But this fellowship and the consequent joy are not ends in themselves. Experiencing this fellowship in Christ and an experimental acquaintance with this joy testify to our participation in eternal life (1 John 5:13). They provide evidence undergirding our assurance of salvation. Seeing 1 John 1:3-4 in the light of 1 John 5:13 illuminates its real significance within 1 John.
Copyright © 2020
Calvin, J. The Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John (T. H. L. Parker, Trans.). D. W. and T. F. Torrance (Eds.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Nicoll, W. R. (Ed.). (1961) The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Smalley, S. S. 1, 2, and 3 John, Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Stott, J. R. W. (1960). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Wescott, B. F. (1966). The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.