The consensus among commentators is that the Apostle John wrote what we call 1 John late in the first century, perhaps around 90 A.D. The Epistle carries the language and phraseology of the Gospel and thus appears to be written by John (Wescott, 1966, p. xxx). The witness of the early church seems to confirm this point (Nicoll, 1961, p. 151-2). Therefore, we call it John’s First Epistle, although it does not have the usual salutation of a letter, nor does John directly identify himself. Instead, he stands among those who are eye-witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (1 John 1:1-4).
Stephen Smalley (2008) calls 1 John a “paper” (p. xxv). Alternately, “It is probably best to regard it as a tract written to deal with a specific problem; it is a written sermon or pastoral address” (Marshall, 1978, p. 14). John probably wrote this piece in Ephesus for circulation among the churches he planted in Asia Minor.
The common perception among readers and commentators is that 1 John weighs in against heresy, particularly Gnosticism, within the Christian community of Asia Minor. Brooke (1964) puts it succinctly, “The connection of the Epistle with Gnosticism is quite apparent” (p. xliii). Robertson agrees, “The Epistle is not a polemic primarily … Yet the errors of the Gnostics are constantly before John’s mind” (p. 200). Marshall (1978) takes exception, “It remains, however, doubtful whether Gnosticism in the full-blown sense of the term existed in the first century” (p. 52). Gnostics, it should be noted, “believed in salvation by enlightenment” (Stott, 1981, p. 46).
Smalley believes that tension developed between two strains of heretical belief, Ebionite and Docetic (2008, p. xxi). Wescott (1966) adds, “The main questions of the debate are gathered around the Person and Work of the Lord. On the one side, He was represented as a mere man (Ebionism): on the other side he was represented as a mere phantom (Docetism)” (xxxiv). Yes, the Ebionites saw Jesus as a mere man; “Both the divinity of Christ and His virgin birth were denied” (Berkhof, 1975, p. 44). Also, the Ebionites gave “an exalted place to the Jewish law” (Smalley, 2008, xxi). “This sect really constituted the continuation of the Judaistic opponents of the Apostle Paul and was of the Pharisaic type” (Berkhof, 1975, p. 44). They tended toward legalism as a part of their outlook. Marshall states further “that what John condemns is a Docetic or similar christology and a lowering of Christian ethical standards rather than a full-blown Gnostic system of teaching” (p. 52). In other words, the Docetic position, in part, manifested antinomianism.
Well, it may be fine to explore the false teachings that are behind the exhortations of 1 John. Such explorations tickle the ears and excite the intellect. However, it is perhaps more useful to take the text at face value rather than seeking to explore what may or may not be in the background. Are there modern counterparts to the Docetic and Ebionite heresies? The problems of both legalism and antinomianism are close at hand. But we can address these aberrations directly in the application of specific texts within this little book. Taking a detour into the thicket of particular heresies places emphasis upon them. It then seems that John’s primary purpose is to correct particular false doctrines and practices when he actually has a more profound purpose in mind.
A review of Calvin’s commentary on The First Epistle of John (1961) reveals that the great expositor does not mention Gnosticism, Gnostics, Docetism, or the Ebionites. He speaks of heretics once in his dedication, once concerning 1 John 2:22-23, and twice regarding 1 John 4:1-3. The latter text reads as follows,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
Calvin (1961) says in part, “But he only repeats here what we have heard before; that, just as Christ is the object at which true faith aims, so He is the stumbling-block on which all heretics stumble” (p. 286). Continuing to comment on verse 2, Calvin goes on to say, “Therefore, the ancient heretics departed from this faith, partly by denying Christ’s divine nature, partly his human … ” (p. 286). The Ebionites denied Christ’s divine nature. Docetism dismissed Christ’s human nature. But Calvin does not pursue these avenues of discussion. Instead, he is anxious to move to contemporary application and points directly at the Papists. “Therefore, the ancient heretics departed from this faith, partly by denying Christ’s divine nature, partly his human, so the Papists today” (p. 286). Calvin refers to the Papists nine times in his commentary on 1 John.
And so, Calvin sticks close to the text. He does not diverge from the main point of the Epistle. Consider 1 John 4:4, “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” As Calvin says, “The apostle’s aim was to encourage believers to resist imposters bravely and undauntedly” (p. 287). Calvin adds this word of assurance, “As to the general tenor of this passage, it is a great comfort that, with whatever tricks Satan may attack us, we shall stand in the truth of God” (p. 287).
In my exposition of 1 John, I do not seek to unravel the supposed thoughts of those to whom John writes. Instead, I aim to follow the example of Calvin. I pupose to stick close to the text and apply it to contemporary life. In doing so, I anchor my exposition in the primary purpose of this book: “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). This emphasis is pro-assurance instead of anti-heresy.
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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.
Berkhof, L. (1975). The History of Christian Doctrines. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth.
Brooke, A. E. (1964). A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Marshall, I. H. (1978). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Smalley, S. S. (2008). 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.