Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2
Early church leaders referred to 1 John as a “catholic epistle” (also known as a “general letter”) because of its formal treatise-like tone and lack of personal address or distinctive audience.
In fact, the prominence of 1 John eventually led to the group of more universal letters in the New Testament known as the Catholic Epistles. In addition, the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John becomes evident across the first verses of the letter. The Evangelist’s language of love, knowledge, and the gift of truth for the children of God permeates these pages but culminate in a more grounded and direct plea for, scholars suggest, the same general community.
Most scholars suggest the letters are written about a decade after the Gospel to address a later threat that was fracturing the Johannine community of churches. Additional details of the world behind these texts must be gleaned from the expressed concerns. 1 John 2:19-23 indicates a schism has occurred in the community that is based in the denial of Jesus as the Christ. 2 John 7-9 clarifies the christological crisis in terms of incarnation: those who have left reject the claim that Jesus was fully human. In distress, the author calls them antichrists — that is anti-Christian in that they are falling for these “new-fangled” ideas and not adhering to the tradition they received. This suggests some members of the community have been attracted to Gnosticism, a Hellenistic form of Christianity developing in the early second century and eventually deemed heresy.
The author’s overarching purpose in writing these epistles, therefore, is to root out these splintering notions and urge unity in the community. Further exploration of 1 John’s structure reveals a prologue that mirrors that of the Gospel (1:1-4); while the final verses likewise echo the Gospel’s concluding sounds (5:13-21). Within this theological frame the author makes three resounding appeals to the new community in terms of the characteristics of God that form the heart and soul of God’s children: light (1:5-2:27), justice (2:28-4:6), and love (4:7-5:12). They warn the community of the dangers of the world, while instructing on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. Today’s passage covers the prologue and the first segment of the opening appeal (1:1-2:2).
Prologue: The word of life for the community
The author states his purpose in the prologue with intentional echoes of both Genesis and the new “beginning” of the Gospel prologue (1 John 1:1-4; see Genesis 1, John 1:1-18). But “the word of life” he declares is only that which the community has collectively perceived through the senses — what they have “heard,” “seen,” “looked at,” and “touched.” Therefore he can “testify” to that which has been “revealed.” This is the mark of the true fellowship he wishes for the community: it is grounded in the complete joy of union with God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. The ensuing appeals are all written toward that goal.
The experience of the light: the word of God in Jesus
The opening appeal is the proclamation that God is Light in terms of the community’s experience of the Light (1 John 1:5-2:2), the message of the Light itself (2:3-11), and the crisis the Light faces in this world (2:12-27). John 1:1-5 introduced God and God’s Word as creators of life and light in the world. Now in 1 John and based upon their own experience of the Light in their lives, the community is called to acknowledge the Word of God in Jesus (1 John 1:5). Here the author gives insight into the conflict that has arisen in the community. In a series of conditional statements he asserts that the claim to be without sin lies outside of the truth. To claim such is to make a liar of Jesus and his blood that cleanses this sin (referring to his sacrificial death on the cross that atoned for sins; 1 John 1:6-10; see John 1:29, 36; 18:28-19:16a).
The author reaffirms his concern in writing (1 John 2:2). Just as Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete, or Advocate, for humankind in the Last Discourse (John 13-17), the author speaks of Jesus as the Advocate for humankind and its sinful nature before the Father. Indeed, the indwelling of the word in truth leads to his claim that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This experience is affirmed in Christ, the Light of God and of all humankind, and his central message that knowledge of God leads to fellowship in God. This is a further affirmation of the two primary commandments of the Gospel: to believe in God and to love one another. The author teaches that ongoing faith in God leads to ethical living in community with each other.
The collective summons of 1 John punctuates the Gospel’s teaching on believing in God as revealed through Jesus, the human Christ who is also God incarnate, and on loving one another as the ethic that naturally follows from living as authentic children of God. One’s relationship with God through believing in Jesus Christ empowers, enlivens, and sets parameters for the ensuing relationship with other people who are likewise struggling to live in an often-difficult world. These Letters give testament both to the powerful self-giving love of God through Christ in relationship with humankind, as well as to the profound frailty of the nature of that same humankind.
The open call for a community to live in equal fellowship through believing in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God and love of both God and one another is a vocation that every Christian can agree upon. This summons to relationship is never in question. The ability of humankind to live in this ideal, if unstructured, relationship in an imperfect world is. This is the ongoing challenge of living in community as children of God.