Commentary on 1 John 1:1—2:2
Despite bearing the title “the First Epistle of John,” the author of this work is not named in the writing, and it is not written in the standard form of a letter in the Greco-Roman world. It seems to take the form of an essay or homily, or perhaps several meditations threaded together around common themes.
Given that the themes of 1 John are also prominent in John’s Gospel, the writing is most likely addressed to a community for whom the Gospel of John is particularly important. At the time of the writing (near the end of the first century) it is a community in crisis, threatened by schism. The author writes to members of the community to prevent them from being led astray by a dissident group.
The nature of the controversy dividing the community is both Christological and practical. Clues to the Christological nature of the conflict are found in 1 John 2:22, where the author writes, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son,” and in 1 John 4:2-3, which states, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (see also 2 John 7).
It seems that the dissident group denied that the human Jesus was in fact the Christ, or in other words, that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. These beliefs resemble those of Docetism (from the Greek verb, dokein, meaning to seem), which claimed that Christ only seemed to have a physical body and to suffer and die. The underlying belief system of Docetism, also integral to Gnostic beliefs appearing in the 2nd century, held that matter (and thus human flesh) was inherently evil. Therefore, it was impossible that Christ, who was inherently good and spiritual, could become flesh. If Christ did not physically die, then his resurrection was also an illusion.
The prologue of 1 John (1:1-4) echoes the prologue of John’s Gospel in several themes, one of which is its insistence on the incarnation—that the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” (1 John 1:1). The author is not necessarily claiming to have been an eyewitness to the earthly ministry of Jesus but is laying claim to the collective witness of the church, that which has been proclaimed “from the beginning.”
The author insists that true fellowship with God the Father is possible only through his Son Jesus Christ, whose human, earthly life and ministry revealed the way of eternal life (1:2). The importance of this Christological argument is closely linked to the practical problems posed by the dissident group. Belief in a disembodied Christ sustains a disembodied piety—a piety that claims a higher knowledge and spirituality freed from the body and its sinful nature (1:6-10), a piety that displays hatred rather than love toward others (2:9-11) and is oblivious to their physical needs (3:17).
It seems that certain members of the dissident group claimed to have already “arrived” spiritually, to be in perfect fellowship with God and free of sin. In 1 John 1:6-10, the author introduces three conditional statements with “If we say…”, and then echoes the claims of the dissident group: “that we have fellowship with him” (1:6), “that we have no sin” (1:8), “that we have not sinned” (1:10). The author makes clear that all these claims are simply self-deception.
“But if we confess our sins….” The author asserts that the alternative to self-deception is to let the pure, healing light of God (1:5) shine into the dark corners of our lives. It is to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness and cleansing (1:9). We are assured of forgiveness because Jesus Christ is our advocate (paraclêtos) with the Father who is called alongside us to plead our case. He is also the expiation (hilasmos) for our sins and for the sins of the whole world, the one whose self-sacrifice removes the stain of sin.
1 John insists that the real, flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus in this world matters. His suffering and dying as a human being matter. They show us that God is not distant or detached from our existence but enters fully into our human reality. So also, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ matters. It assures us that his life-giving power will finally conquer sin, suffering, and death, and that our whole selves will be redeemed.
The author writes so that his readers/hearers may remain in fellowship with the community of faith and with the Father and the Son (1:4). In fellowship with the Word made flesh, it is impossible to remain distant from others or detached from their suffering. Fellowship is not simply a warm, cozy gathering of like-minded people. It is a call to embody the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, the implications of which will be spelled out in the rest of the letter.