Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: 1 John
The epistle 1 John is one of three letters traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle who also authored the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. The letter itself does not read like many of the other letters of the new testament. It lacks the formal greeting and conclusion of many of the other letters and seems to address heresies related to the identity of Christ. This has caused many scholars to believe it was a written as a treatise or essay designed to help readers more clearly understand the John’s Gospel.
Whatever the exact relationship to the Gospel of John, the similarities in both structure and language are apparent from the very first verse. Thus, the Gospel of John becomes a clear interpretive key to understanding this letter.
The letter begins with an opening prologue which is nearly a mirror image of the Gospel of John.
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us…” 1 John 1: 1-2
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1: 1-5
In this way, the prologue establishes the major themes of the letter: the identity of Christ and the light of Christ as the source of identity for the Christian. You see, it will be this light of Christ made visible in our souls which will be the heart of the Christian life and source of our salvation.
The prologue is followed by the author’s summary of the Gospel message which reiterates these central themes.
“Now this is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10
Thus, the Christian life is comprised of walking in the light. The remainder of the letter will cycle back and forth between examples of walking in the light (remaining faithful) and walking in darkness (forsaking Christ our light).
The Upper Room: The Key to Interpreting 1 John
The best way to understand the remainder of the letter is to read in conjunction with the chapter 15 through 17 of the Gospel of John. So much of the language is reflective of Jesus’ discourse at the last supper. One must remember that John was present in the upper room and it is clear in both this epistle and in the Gospel that it was the defining point of his life.
For John, the greatest expression of walking in the light is the keeping of Jesus’s commandments.
“The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to live [just] as he lived.” 1 John 2: 3-6
“Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall.” 1 John 2:10
Once again, this instruction should harken us back to the words of Jesus in Gospel of John.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither…” John 15: 5-6
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.” John 15:7
“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” John 15:10
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” John 15: 12
On the other hand, we stray when we don’t live in the identity of Christ. When we fail in love and fail to follow the commandments. Doing so causes us to lose our identity.
“Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness.” 1 John 2: 9
“Whoever hates his brother is in darkness; he walks in darkness and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” 1 John 2: 11
Obviously, we cannot hope to mine the depths of this great letter in this brief blog post. However, we hope that you will consider reflecting on 1 John and that it helps illuminate the upper room and the Christian life for you. The letter is a little known but great treasure.