1 John 1:5-7 – If We Claim to Have Fellowship with God

John uses darkness and light as metaphors for how to live life in fellowship with God. Because God is light, those in fellowship with him will walk in the light (1:5). The metaphor of darkness and light is common in Second Temple Judaism.

Paul also used a similar metaphor in 1 Thessalonians 5:5. The Christian is a child of light and the day, the ones who are awake. The wicked are the ones who belong to the darkness or the night, the ones who are asleep. Possibly Paul had Matthew 25 in mind, the parable of the Ten Virgins (some are in the light of the wedding banquet, others are outside in the darkness).

Walking in the DarknessThe primary background for John’s light and dark metaphor is the Gospel of John. Jesus himself is the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5) who reveals the light of the glory of God (John 1:4, 14, 16). In John 12:35-36 Jesus commands his disciples to walk in the light before the darkness overtakes them because they are children of light. John states God himself is light and there is no darkness in him. John’s point is not to equate God with literal light, but to the fact that human virtue and righteousness are defined by the character of God, it is God defines moral standards.

To be in fellowship with God requires we walk in the light (1:6). This is the first of three conditional sentences in this section: If we make the claim to have fellowship with God but are not walking in the light. It is likely these three conditional sentences are claims the opponents have made. They went out from John’s community and claimed they still had fellowship with God. But they are walking in darkness, so they cannot be in fellowship with God. A third class conditional sentence may not reflect actual reality. The syntax as the sense of “If we say this (and I am not claiming you are in fact saying this), then this is the case.” Karen Jobes says “There is an implicit uncertainty as to who is saying these things.” The grammar might be understood as “if anyone of us claims to have fellowship with God but walk in the darkness…” (1, 2, & 3 John, 65; citing Wallace, GGBB, 698).

To “walk” is a common way in the Old Testament for expressing how a person lived their life, so “Enoch walked with God” (Gen 5:24) means something like, “Enoch lived a righteous life.” In later wisdom literature there were “two ways” a person could walk, one that led to life and another than led to death.

Unfortunately, “What it actually means to ‘walk in the light’ and to ‘walk in the darkness’ is not explained in this letter.” I would suggest (based on the rest of the letter) that there is some doctrinal component to walking in the light, believing the right things about Jesus. But there is a clear ethical component as well, the one walking in the light (as Jesus is in the light) are living out their faith in a way that is pleasing and acceptable to God.

How we unpack those two areas are important: how much doctrinal agreement is necessary to have fellowship? The Apostle’s Creed? The Nicene Creed? Even then, do we need to all agree on how each line is understood? (I believe in the Holy Spirit is extremely vague!) The Evangelical Theological Society doctrinal statement is only two points (Trinity and Inerrancy). My own church has fourteen points in their doctrinal statement. Or do we need to agree with a detailed document like the Westminster Confession or the Augsburg Confession to ensure doctrinal fidelity?

The same can be said for ethical and moral “walking in the light.” What are the community rules we are all willing to accept and demand of each other, and what are the non-essentials we are willing to compromise on? Older Christians might have argued about going to the movies or use of alcohol, but there are much more difficult issues to be discussed in the present church, such as sexual choices and how Christians should (or should not) react to them, The church ought to have something to say about treatment of the poor and the immigrant from a biblical perspective (rather than a political position).

So walking in the light is much more difficult than “keep the Ten Commandments” or “be kind to people.” Those are good things, but the one who is walking in the light ought to shine that light into the darkness of this world in order to bring the Gospel to bear on more than just a few key doctrines or practices.

1 John 1:3-4 – The Reason for Writing 1 John

John explains his reason for writing this letter: “that you may have fellowship with us” (v. 3a). Fellowship (κοινωνία) refers to “close association involving mutual interests and sharing” (BDAG). We need to avoid thinking this fellowship is like modern Christian fellowship (snacks after church in the fellowship hall). The word can refer to sharing of resources, like a church koinonia fund. Romans sometimes joined voluntary associations which had some benefits, like a funeral association. You gave money to the group and they took care of your burial when you died. Local Christian churches had a similar purpose, people shared food and other resources with others so all were taken care of. Remember Paul giving instructions on care for widows, or the care for widows in Acts 6. But the word can also refer to a partnership, something like an organization that wants to “partner with you” (i.e., share your resources by getting you to give to their capital campaign).

John’s point here is if the reader wants to continue to have a fellowship relationship with the apostolic group he represents, then the reader will accept his testimony as true and respond properly to that testimony (believe right about Jesus and love one another, etc.) If the readers do not have fellowship with author then they have fellowship with the succecessionists.

The second reason for the letter is “so that you may have fellowship with the Father and Son” (v. 3b). On the one hand, this refers to eternal life, but in another sense “having fellowship” here means the believers can have a real sharing of resources with God himself. If one is in fellowship with God, then they also share fellowship with the Son of God, Jesus, the Messiah (3b). The phrase “son of God” might get overlooked here, but this is a messianic title (Psalm 2:6-7, based on the Davidic Covenant in 2 Sam 7:14, cf. Romans 1:4, Jesus is the “Son of God in power”).

It is important to keep the Jewish background in mind when we read Christ as well, this is a title, the Messiah. The purpose of John’s Gospel is that the reader would believe “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” This may be something the opponents deny (we will return to the reasons for this later). In 1 John 2:22 “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?”

Finally, John says he is writing this letter “so that our joy might be compete” (v. 4). There is a well-known textual variant here, some manuscripts have “your joy,” there is only one letter difference and the two words sound similar enough to account for the variant. Most modern translations have “our joy,” the KJV has “your joy.” Metzger favors the first person plural, “our joy” since it fits the context better. The writer will have complete joy when the readers believe in his testimony concerning the Word of Life (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition, 639).

The purpose “completed joy” alludes to the Gospel of John. In John 3:29 John the Baptist refers to his role as a friend of the bridegroom (Jesus) as complete now that the bridegroom as arrived. He says “Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.” The Greek is very similar to 1 John 1:4. In John 15:11 Jesus says the things he has spoken things to his disciples so that their joy may be full and in 16:20-22 he says that after the resurrection their joy will be restored and no one can take their joy away from them. In John 17:13 Jesus prays that his disciples may have his joy fulfilled in themselves.

These three reasons for writing the short letter now known as 1 John all relate to how the writer understands those who are part of the apostolic community and those who are outside of that community. John will further define what it means to continue as part of his community. Some of these will right teaching about Jesus, others will be proper behavior as a Christian, summarized in the phrase “love one another.”

1 John 1:1-2 – Eyewitness to the Word of Life

John begins this letter with an allusion to the Gospel of John, “that which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1a). If this letter was to be read in a congregation, then these first lines establish the authority of the author. In Paul’s letters, he usually begins with his name, perhaps a title (apostle, servant of Jesus). This letter is anonymous, but this paragraph would have been clear to the original audience: the author is an eyewitness to Jesus, the one who has apostolic authority to make the demands found in the letter.

The first words connect First John to the Gospel of John. John 1:1 started with the phrase “in the beginning,” this letter has nearly the same words (the relative pronoun is added, “that which”). The author’s authority is related to the fact he wrote the Gospel of John, and the opening paragraph has other allusions to the Gospel. To a certain extent, this is like an author of a book putting his other books on the cover of a new book in order to demonstrate his authority on the subject.

There is a problem in the first line of the letter, the Greek has a neuter relative pronoun (“that which”) but the author seems to be referring to Jesus, the Word of Life (“word” is a masculine noun in Greek).  One option is John is referring to the Gospel (which is neuter in Greek), but he does not explicitly use the word in the letter. Jobes suggest this is a generic use of the pronoun, referring to Jesus and the well-known the story of the Gospels (1, 2, 3 John, 44).

The beginning of what? In John’s Gospel, the reference is to creation. The Word was present at creation because the Word is God. That may be what John has in mind here as well, but later he will use the phrase “from the beginning” to refer to the beginning of the Gospel, or the beginning of the reader’s relationship with Christ (the beginning of their Christian life).

John’s claim is he is an eyewitness of Jesus’s life and teaching. John’s pronouns are all first person plural. This is either an “editorial we” or he represents a community of eyewitnesses. Richard Bauckham calls this the “we of authoritative testimony” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 369-83). John claims to have seen with his eyes (ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν) and perceived (ἐθεασάμεθα). Are these two different things? The first refers to literal seeing something, this is John’s claim to be an eyewitness. The second verb can have the same sense, but is sometimes used for perception. You can see something with your eyes and not really understand what it is (“what am I looking at?”)

In John’s Gospel there are many examples of someone seeing one of Jesus’s signs but not really understanding what the sign meant. In John 6 Jesus feeds the crowds and the people seem to understand the “bread of life” on a physical level, manna in the wilderness. Jobes draws an analogy to John 20, Thomas sees and believes, but those who do not see yet believe are blessed (John 20:29; 1, 2, 3 John, 47). Another example might be the Beloved Disciple arriving to the empty tomb before Peter and believing. Peter needs to enter the tomb and see the grave clothes before he believes (John 20:3-10).

John’s claim in these first few verses is to have physically witnessed the revelation of the Word of Life and actually understood (accurately) what the Word of Life revealed about himself in the incarnation. As Jobes says, “the gospel consists not only of the historical facts about Jesus, but the divine interpretation of the meaning of this life, death, and resurrection.” (1, 2, 3 John, 51).

That John should open his letter is the claim of having seen Jesus underscores the importance of being an eyewitness in the ancient world. In a Jewish context, testimony was established by two or three witnesses. This is an important theme in the Book of Acts. Jesus tells his disciples they are going to receive the Holy Spirit so they can be witnesses of all that they have seen (Acts 1:7-8). Likewise, the Gospel of John ends with the testimony of the disciple who wrote down the contents of the book; he bears witness (from μαρτυρέω) these things are true. John may be the last living eyewitness to the life and teaching of Jesus. It is possible to think of the author “pulling rank” and saying something like, “you have to trust me on this because I am the last of the original eyewitnesses.”

Since John is responding to teachers who are teaching a different theology about Jesus, John is claiming to have a superior source of knowledge and understanding of who Jesus was because he was there. He saw and understood everything from the beginning. The opponents either reject this claim, or believe their teaching to be superior to John’s because they have received it through a spiritual gift or perhaps human reasoning.

This appeal to authority might annoy the modern reader, especially those in America. As a general rule we do not appreciate someone appealing to their own authority as a definitive source. We are naturally suspicious when someone claims “this is true because I said it is.” But the ancient world was less suspicious of personal testimony, so John’s claim to be a real witness of Jesus has weight, especially in contrast to the claims of his opponents.

What was the Situation Behind the Letters of John?

When Paul left Ephesus in the late 50s he warned the elders in Ephesus to beware wolves in sheep’s clothing who would infiltrate their congregations (Acts 20:25-31). In his final speech to the Ephesian leaders in Acts 20 Paul says some elders will “distort the truth to draw away disciples for themselves” (v. 30). This situation grew worse, so that Paul needed to warn Timothy to appoint good people to lead the churches (1 Timothy 3:1-13) and to watch for disruptive teachers (4:15).

By the 90s the church at Ephesus continued to struggle with some defection from the gospel. In the letter to the church in Revelation 2:1-7, the Lord praises them for testing false teachers and not tolerating people who claim to be apostles but are not (2:2). But they are also described as having “forsaken their first love” (Rev 2:4).

John writes his first letter in response to a recent schism in the Ephesian church, possibly caused by the publication of the Gospel of John. These opponents continued to influence the apostolic congregations, causing them to doubt the apostolic authority of the author of the letter and making the congregation doubt they are believing he right things about Jesus. What can we know about these opponents?

What is the relationship between John’s community and the opponents who left? “The Christology of the antichrists in the Johannine epistles also can no longer be described with certainty or precision. But it is one example of that pseudo-Christian tendency which manifested itself in Gnosticism and was such a threat to the church” (Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles, 23). John Painter suggests that the author’s community was originally made up of two distinct groups: “those who had been through the struggle with the synagogue and those who had entered the community after the breach with Judaism.” (Painter, “The ‘Opponents’ in 1 John,” NTS 32 (1986): 48–49). Stephen Smalley suggested three groups, one loyal to John, one that was with John during his struggle with the synagogue, and a third group that joined after that struggle. The second group developed into the Ebonites, the third was more Hellenistic and developed into Docetism (Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John; WBC 51, xxiii-xxv).

Several observations are not controversial.

First, the opponents taught something about Jesus the author considers to be both wrong and dangerous (2:18-22; 4:1-6). He describes their teaching as the teaching of the apocalyptic antichrist and sign the “last hour” is near.

Second, they seem to have claimed to no longer sin, or at least what they did no longer counted as sin (1:8). It is impossible to know exactly how this was expressed since we do not have a letter from the opponents. I will suggest later in this series of posts on 1 John the opponents may have claimed some form of Imperial worship could be permissible, possibly accounting for the unusual final line of the book encouraging the reader to keep themselves from idols.

Third, they do not show appropriate love to their fellow Christian brothers and sisters (4:7-8). For John, someone who claims to be a Christian and does not love their brothers and sisters is a liar and the truth is not in them.

Fourth, they claim to be empowered by the Spirit, perhaps asserting this was superior to the author’s eyewitness testimony about Jesus. This is implied by the opening paragraph which emphasizes the author’s status as an eyewitness of Jesus as well as John’s command to “test the spirits” (4:1).

As Colin Kruse states, “the author’s primary aim in writing 1 John was to reassure his readers, whose confidence had been shaken by the activities of the secessionists” (The Letters of John, 33).

Following Karen Jobes’s recent commentary, First John was a sermon in John’s home church, dealing with the recent schism. This sermon was transcribed and edited, and then circulated to other house churches in Ephesus and the surrounding region. This is similar to the book of Revelation, seven mini-letters are appended to the book to churches in the Lycus Valley beginning with Ephesus.

Second John may have been a cover letter to churches where 1 John would be read. A representative from John’s house church would visit another house church, read the letter from the elder John, and help them understand how to deal with those who left the apostle’s churches.Third John is addressed to Gaius, a house church leader a supporter of John, to warn him about another church leader who is not a supporter of John.

Since these letters are so brief, any suggested background ought to be considered tentative.


Who Wrote 1 John?

The Apostle John Who wrote 1 John? The three letters of John are among the last written in the apostolic era. According to the traditional view of these three letters, they were written by John the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, most likely the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John. He also wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. We know very little about John’s activity after Acts 8 and even there he is only mentioned as a companion of Peter. Even though there is a good argument to be made he did ministry in Samaria, little can be known with any certainty.

The Gospel of John has several hints he led a synagogue of Christian Jews and Samaritans. According to tradition, he left Judea and Samaria in the mid-60s just before the Jewish War began and relocated in Ephesus. He led Jewish Christian congregations there until the late 80s or early 90s when he was exiled to the island of Patmos. He wrote the Gospel of John about 85, the three letters and Revelation about 90. He died in the early 90s and was buried in Ephesus. His grave became Saint John’s Basilica and ruins of this church are still a tourist site in Ephesus.

As with most things traditional, almost every aspect of this story is disputed. Like the Gospel of John, the first letter is anonymous and there is no way to prove John left Judea or Galilee and traveled anywhere. The traditions about John the son of Zebedee moving to Ephesus are complicated by the use of the title “John the Elder.” The Elder is the author of Second and Third John, but there is some question whether the John the Elder is the same person as John the Apostle. Eusebius and Jerome both though there were two different men, the Apostle John (who wrote the Gospel and Revelation) and John the Elder, who wrote at least Second and Third John.

In addition, John would have been very old by the end of the first century, leading some to suggest the Gospel and letters represent a community formed around John rather than an elderly John writing these letters himself. Raymond Brown developed the Johannine Community theory in his Anchor Bible Commentaries on the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John and remains a popular view, although it has been frequently challenged.

There are also some complicated theories about how the Gospel of John was formed and how 1 John may be a response to a misunderstanding of an earlier edition of the Gospel. The first letter has been described both as a “cover letter” for the Gospel and as a hermenutical guide for reading the Gospel.

The situation for Second and Third John is slightly different since the author identifies himself as “the elder.” But this not much of a hint at the identity of the author. There even some in the early church who wondered if the Second John needed to be in the canon since it is a brief summary of First John and adds almost nothing to what the first letter says.

Regardless of all this scholarly consternation about the origins of these letters, they are among the most popular among Bible readers today. For many, 1 John is  practical and easy to read letter, yet it is challenging both theologically and spiritually.