Introduction to the First Epistle of John
Dec 28, 2017
John wrote his epistles many years after writing his gospel. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary says that John’s first epistle probably was written about 90 A.D., a short time before the apostle was exiled to the Island of Patmos. He was exiled after the government, under the reign of Domitian, failed to kill him by plunging him into boiling oil. (See Tertullian, On Prescription against Heretics, XXXVI.)
By this time, of course, John had been living in Ephesus for many years. An early version of the gospel had been brought to Ephesus first by Apollos, a disciple of John the Baptist. His gospel was updated by Aquila and Priscilla, whose eviction from the city of Rome had brought them to Ephesus. There the Apostle Paul met them in 53 A.D., during his second missionary journey.
Though Paul had established the church in Ephesus, John later moved there from Jerusalem and became the Elder Apostle. His authority was undisputed for the rest of his life. John lived outside of the city limits with a community of believers on a hill known as Mount Ayasuluk, which overlooked the huge Temple of Artemis.
John guarded the churches in Asia against heresies that were already forming in the first century. These heresies appealed to the Greek mindset and culture, and Christian teaching thus stood at a disadvantage. Whereas John taught the Hebrew view of creation, the heresies taught the Greek view. The Hebrew view said that a good God created all things and pronounced it very good (Genesis 1:31). The Greek view said that the devil created all physical matter in the universe, making it inherently evil.
The heresies of Gnosticism and Docetism, which arose in the first century, were invented by men who added a few Christian elements to Greek and Persian religion. Gnosticism was founded by Simon Magus, who appears in the story of Philip’s evangelistic meetings in Samaria in Acts 8. Docetism, which appeared a little later, taught that Christ’s appearance on earth only gave the appearance, or illusion, of human flesh, because supposedly God would never inhabit human flesh that was inherently evil.
John, of course, countered this fully in his gospel, saying in John 1:14, “and the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Again, he writes in 1 John 4:2, 3,
2 By this you know the Spirit of God; every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of antichrist…
John was obviously very concerned about these heresies which claimed to have the true revelation and knowledge (gnosis) of God. But their knowledge was based upon Greek wisdom, which in turn was soulish (psychikos), not spiritual (pneumatikos). The apostles had walked with Jesus and had touched Him physically, so they were eyewitnesses of the truth. Further, when the Holy Spirit came upon them in the upper room, the experience proved again that the Holy Spirit could inhabit human flesh. Pentecost itself disproved Gnosticism, Docetism, and Greek religion in general.
The third heresy that John countered, especially in his first epistle, is antinomianism (or “lawlessness”), which came indirectly from the immoral culture of Greek religion. Because knowledge (gnosis) was held to be superior to virtue or morality, the divine law was looked upon as binding, too restrictive, too oppressive. The Greeks tended to think of sin in terms of ignorance, whereas the Hebrew Scriptures taught that sin was lawlessness (1 John 3:4).
The Greeks sought to eradicate sin through education, whereas the Hebrews covered sin through blood sacrifice. Hence, the Greek philosophers sought to deal with the problem of sin in a classroom, whereas the Hebrew prophets dealt with sin in a court of law. These methods of dealing with sin were radically different.
Gnosticism, Docetism, and Antinomianism were all disputed by John in his writings. Nonetheless, these ideas made inroads into Christian thought as the centuries passed. I have encountered all of them even today, but the most common heresy in the church today is Antinomianism, which teaches that the law of God was put away at the cross. Many do not seem to understand that the cross and the blood of Jesus covered sin, not by setting aside the law, but by fulfilling its demand.
In other words, Jesus honored the law by fulfilling it to the letter and satisfying its demands. In fact, the demands of the law prophesied of Christ, because there was never any doubt from the beginning of time that He would do all that the law commanded—even to the point of dying as the Sacrifice for sin.
Jesus did not die so that believers could be lawless. He died so that believers could be set free from enslavement to sin.
Antinomianism is the attempt of the soulish man to assuage the conscience while retaining the right to sin. It springs from the fallen soul, not from one’s spirit. The soul (since Adam sinned) has desired to sin continually, and antinomianism is one expression of this desire.
In his Epistle of Fellowship, John lays the foundations of fellowship with God and with each other. In setting forth the basis of fellowship, the apostle digs deep until he reaches its origins in the book of Genesis.
This is an introduction to a series titled "Studies in First John." To view all parts, click the link below.