Preaching Series on 1 John

First in a 6-week series

Sand art with cross = heart (God is love)
Photo by Neal E. Johnson on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 23, 2024

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Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2

Series overview

Though often described as a letter, 1 John is, in many ways, better understood as a sermon, written to encourage and teach a group of Jesus followers who find their community in danger of fracturing. Comparison with the letters of Paul show that 1 John lacks the salutations and farewells from people known to the congregation. In fact, 1 John does not name either its sender or the intended recipients. The lack of personal touches does not, however, diminish the concern that the sender shows for the group of believers that he writes to. Throughout the letter, he refers to them as his “little children” and his “beloved. For the preacher, this lack of personal touch may even be an advantage; unlike the letters of Paul, which speak to the needs of specific congregations, 1 John has always been considered part of the “catholic” letters, catholic here meaning letters directed to all Christians. This is not to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to the nuances of 1 John’s ancient context; however, it does give us the invitation to apply its encouragement and teachings to our own communities.

Readers and hearers encountering 1 John for the first time may do so with a sense of déjà vu. Numerous phrases of the Gospel of John occur in the letter, though often with slightly different wording. In addition, those familiar with mid-twentieth century liturgical worship will also hear echoes of the confession and communion liturgies. Preachers whose congregations are familiar with these have the opportunity to introduce their congregations to the interplay between biblical text and church tradition that connects our modern contexts to the ancient witness. 

Week 1 (6/23/2024): 1 John 1:1–2:2

1 John begins with a bang, as the author lays his credentials on the table. Starting with “first things first,” he claims to be a witness to “what was from the beginning” (1:1). At face value this refers to Jesus’ ministry as the beginning of their community, but it also alludes to the opening of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). This allusion grounds the author’s authority not just in his experience of Jesus, but in the cosmic beginning that Jesus as the Word of God made possible. Moving on from the beginning, the author appeals not to his audiences’ intellects, but their senses. He has “heard,” “seen,” “looked at” and “touched.” Here again, we can see an allusion to Thomas’ declaration that he needs to see and touch the wounds of Christ (John 20:25). Thus within two verses, the author references both the beginning and the end of the Gospel of John, locating his authority in the whole story of Jesus from the beginning of time to his resurrection from the dead.

The author turns quickly from his proclamation of joy to one of the issues that concerns him throughout his sermon: sin and its effect on the relationship of believers to one another and to God. 1 John maintains that sin has the possibility, not only of breaking the fellowship between believers, but also of impacting their relationship to God. The corollary of this, however, is that the Son, who forgives sin, can restore those broken relationships. What this requires, however, is the confession of sin and the acknowledgement of the human capacity for self-deception (1 John 1:8).

Week 2 (6/30/2024): 1 John 3:1-7

This week’s reading continues two themes from the first week: the relationship that believers have to God and the way that sin impacts that relationship. The author develops both themes by highlighting a difficulty that the believers face: They have become children of God and yet they live in an in-between place. Their lives have changed forever, but they do not yet see God’s true glory (3:2). The author’s contrasting statements on sin (3:3-3:7) need to be read in light of this difficulty. These verses should not be read as advocating for the thesis that “real Christians don’t sin.” The author’s claim that the believers will be like God “when he is revealed,” contains the implicit observation that they are not yet like God (3:2), and his future promise of seeing God “as he is” conditions the statement that “no one who sins has seen him” (3:6). These verses should be read as part of the author’s strategy to encourage the fellowship to realize the harmful nature of sin and to resist it. By pointing to the future hope of seeing and knowing God, the author hopes to orient his readers towards God’s ways of being in order to move them away from impurity and lawlessness (3:3-3:4).

Week 3 (7/7/2024): 1 John 3:16-24

Last week, the author focused on the future hope of seeing God to motivate believers to turn away from sin; this week he calls on the example of Jesus for the same purpose. Like the beginning of the letter, this section is infused with references to the Gospel of John, especially Jesus’s vine sermon (John 15:1-17). As with last week’s reading, it’s important not to take the author’s statements out of context. It is true that the author calls believers to love “in truth and action” and to “obey the commandments” (3:18, 22). At the same time, however, he destabilizes readers who are overly confident in their knowledge of what those commandments actually are by reframing the traditional two-fold summary of the Law. Instead of “you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind” and “you should love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:30-31), he maintains that “we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (3:23). Whereas the first framing emphasizes love in both halves, 1 John’s framing subordinates love to faith in Jesus Christ, and the author’s statements on the nature of love and following the commandments should be read in light of this.

Week 4 (7/14/2024): 1 John 4:7-21

In this week’s reading, the author continues to offer a different emphasis on what constitutes the law. Instead of summarizing the law as love flowing out from the believer to God and the neighbor, he advocates for top-down understanding of love. Love flows from God to the believer and from the believer to neighbors in need. The ability of the believer to love their neighbor is tied to whether they “know” God and whether they acknowledge God’s overflowing love for them. This overflowing love is demonstrated by God in two ways: first, the giving of the Son as the “atoning sacrifice for sins” (4:10) and then by the sending of the Spirit (4:13). The repetition of the theme “we love because he first loved us” (4:7, 4:10, 4:19) may serve as an argument against those that emphasize love for God as the primary focus of the believer and thus neglect the needy in their community. Though he has placed the emphasis on love coming down from above, the author ends this section by leaving his readers in a familiar place: Love for God and love for neighbor go hand in hand.

Week 5 (7/21/2024): 1 John 5:1-6

Last week, the author walked his readers through a novel way of conceiving of love and the Law, emphasizing the principle “know God, love the neighbor,” instead of “love God, love the neighbor.” This week he continues his emphasis on love, but leads the reader the opposite way through the problem. Instead of a focus on God’s love making love of the neighbor possible, he casts love for God and obedience to the commandments as the precondition of loving. Within three chapters, the author has presented three different conceptions of love and its relationship to God. Each of these emphases points to the difficulty of describing the flow of the believers’ life. Sometimes it feels as though love for God inspires love for neighbor; sometimes, instead, love from God inspires love for the neighbor. The multi-faceted nature of God’s love and our response defies easy categorization. Despite the twists and turns of his thinking, the author grounds all his thoughts on love on the same foundation: belief in Jesus Christ. This belief in Jesus Christ stretches beyond love and beyond the relationship of people to one another. In fact, the author claims that it has cosmic significance because it allows the believer to overcome the world (Greek kosmos) (5:5).

Week 6 (7/28/2024): 1 John 5:9-13

Our series on 1 John ends with another text that has strong ties to the Gospel of John through the theme of testimony. In a debate with the authorities in the Gospel of John, Jesus makes the case that he has on his side human testimony (John the Baptist), divine testimony (God the Father), the self-evident testimony of his own works and the testimony of Scripture (John 5:30-39). Jesus employs a legal metaphor here, making the point that all of these witnesses would be accepted as trustworthy in adjudicating a religious dispute. 1 John picks up on this theme, arguing that since his readers accept human testimony in court, they should even more readily accept the testimony of God regarding his Son. 

Having dealt with the problem of sin and exhorted the community to love one another, the author brings his letter to a close by emphasizing the gift of eternal life that Jesus brings (5:11, 13). He ends with the confidence that those who receive his letter are believers in the Son of God and he reminds them that this belief, in spite of their sin and their love, is what leads to eternal life.

Karoline Lewis

Open Forum with Karoline Lewis

You’re invited to an hourlong Zoom meeting on Tuesday, June 25, at 3pm Central.

Sermon Brainwave co-host Karoline Lewis will be present as we gather insights from the Working Preacher audience, including you!

Join us so we can learn how you use this digital ministry.