1. Recipients, Author and Time of Writing
Although the First Epistle of John does not bear any author's name it was never seriously doubted that the apostle John is the author of this epistle as well as of the fourth gospel. Contents, style and language of these two books are very similar. The first verses of the Epistle show a certain parallelism with the opening statements of John's gospel. Terms such as light and darkness, life and death, truth and lie as well as the only begotten son are typical for both books.
The author calls himself an eyewitness of Jesus' life (chapter 1:1-3) and expresses himself with the authority of a respected, elder spiritual leader. In connection with John's gospel all of this points to the Apostle John as author of the epistle (compare with notes on John's Gospel).
The wide recognition in the early church does also confirm the above. The first to cite from John's First Epistle is Polycarp of Smyrna (around 70 to 155 AC) who himself knew John personally. (The quotation is not explicitly attributed to John, though.) Further references are made by Irenaeus (around 140 to 202 AC), Clemens of Alexandria (around 150 to 215 AC), Tertullian (around 160 to 220 AC), Papias (around 65 to 150 AC according to Eusebius) and the Muratori Canon (end of 2nd century). Modern criticism tends to suggest that the epistle was written either by a "presbyter called John" or by a student of the apostle John.
Most researchers date the epistle towards the end of the first century that is between 90 and 100 AC (the Gospel of John is dated at around the same time). It is probably not possible to state whether the Epistle or the Gospel of John has been written first.
The first epistle does not mention any addressees. Many researchers, however, take the recipients to be among the Christians in Minor Asia; but the epistle bears a universal character. As the epistle of Jude so John's First Epistle address all believers. The frequent address "children" (chap. 2:1.12.28; 3:7.18; 4:4; 5:21; Greek teknion: properly "dear child") and "little children" (chap. 2:13.18; Greek paidion: "little child") is striking. In addition, the Epistle contains a third expression indicating the relation between God and his children (chap. 3:1.10; 5:2; Greek tekna theou: "children of God"). The expressions "brethren" (chap. 2:7; 3:13) and "beloved" (chap. 3:2.21; 4:1.7.11) testify the affection connecting the author with the recipients of the epistle.
2. Subject and purpose of writing
The First Epistle does not bear any indication of an author nor of an addressee. Greetings and other personal messages are missing also. This is why some have suggested that it is no epistle but a written sermon (or homily) or tract. The repeated expression of "I write unto you" indicates the book to be an epistle or letter however unique and special (compare chap. 1:4; 2:126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52; 5:13).
As does the Epistle of James this Epistle does not contain a perceptible logical structure of thoughts. The Apostle John deals with his various main subjects (life eternal, brotherly love, practical righteousness) at times more than once in an extremely simple way of expression but with great solemnity.
The apostle stresses invariability and certainty of the Christian message by the repeated expression "from the beginning" (chap. 1:1; 2:184.108.40.206; 3:11; compare with 2 John 5 + 6). He expresses the personal assurance of faith by frequently repeating the words "we know" (chap. 2:220.127.116.11.21.29; 3:18.104.22.168; 5:22.214.171.124.19.20).
By the epistle we learn that towards the end of the first century heretics arose among the Christians who denied the divine sonship of Christ (chap. 2:18-23), the incarnation of the Eternal Son (chap. 4:1-3) and the necessity of a life of faith in practical righteousness and brotherly love. These attacks on Christology and the Christian ethic were stages of Gnosticism in its various shades which spread more and more during the 2nd century. John calls these opponents of the Christian faith "antichrists" (chap. 2:18; 4:3), that is forerunners of the great opponent of Christ in the last days after the rapture of the church (compare with 2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:11ff; 19:20).
John contrasts these attacks of the Christian faith with the facts of salvation. He tells them that Christ the Eternal Son of God, the eternal life Himself, has come and that those who believe on Him receive eternal life and the sonship of God. At the same time he refers to the tests by which one can recognize whether someone has true life of God. The aim of the epistle is expressed in chapter 5:13: "These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God."
The Gospel of John describes the revelation of life eternal in Christ the incarnated Word. The First Epistle of John shows the revelation of this life in those who believe in the Son of God. It also shows the features of this life in its practical realisation in the believers: righteousness and brotherly love. Thus this epistle has rightly been called a continuation of the gospel of John (of chapters 1 to 19) especially. In contrast to the Apostle Paul, John does not describe the believer's position in Christ and the privileges of the church of God (ecclesia) but life eternal in the children of God and the relations among the family of God.
There is no middle road for John between light and darkness, truth and lie, life and death. Many a reader has difficulties with this abstract way of presenting and considering as they cannot bring these abstract statements in line with their practical experiences. For example John writes: "Whosoever abides in him sins not: whosoever sins has not seen him, neither known him" (chap. 3:6). John does not describe the practical life of every individual Christian (which life, sad to say, often differs from this) but he lays down divine principles (see paragraph 3.a."John's Divine Logic").
John also shows tests for the practical life of the Christians who are distressed by false teachers. He often refers to the introductory words "If we say..." (chap. 1:6.8.10; 2:4.9; 4:20). For it is not sufficient to give a lip-service only. The practice of our lives of faith has to agree with our confession. Thus only will the genuineness of our confession be seen. With his epistle John wants to strengthen the simplest believer in his faith and to give him a divinely sure foundation and an effective weapon for the battle against false doctrine. Subject and contents of the epistle are summarized in the following words: "And this is the record that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." (chap. 5:11.12)
John's Divine Logic
The absolute statements of this epistle cause many a difficulty to the reader. These difficulties disappear, however, if one understands the "divine logic" behind these absolute statements. One example is: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin." (chap. 3:9). Probably every Christian has a problem with these words when thinking of his practical life. The logic of such a sentence is that it does not bear any similarity to a Christian's practical state. It is rather a fundamental statement on the nature of a man born of God who is, therefore, able to live a life according to God. Both statements of this sentence are entirely congruent (identical) as from God's viewpoint. This logic is simply explained in the following two examples:
1. "One who is dead cannot speak."
The second part of the sentence contains one of many possible evidences and to turn the sentence round would be non-sensical: "Who cannot speak is dead".
2. "One who is poor does not have any possessions."
Here both parts of the sentence are identical in contents. If we turn the sentence round it becomes evident: "One who has no possessions is poor."
The difficult statements of First John are always sentences of the second type. Both parts of the sentence are identical in contents and therefore reversible for they are divine principles.
The Essence of God
The following statements we find in First John only: "God is light" (chap. 1:5) and "God is love" (chap. 4:8.16). The first speaks of God's holiness, truth and righteousness and the second of His grace and mercy. Both characteristics of God stand always in total agreement to each other. They were fully revealed in Christ, the Son of God: "Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Light and love found their upmost development on the cross of Calvary. This is where the love of God to lost sinners was revealed in giving His own Son. But there also the light of God's holiness and righteousness shone in its fullest brightness when Christ the Son of God became the propitiation for our sins. The words of the psalmist do already point to it: "Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other." (Psalm 85:10)
4. Overview of Contents
I. 1 John 1:1-4 Introduction: The Word of Life
II. 1 John 1:5-2:12 Characteristics of True Fellowship with God
III. 1 John 2:13-27 Three Steps of Faith
IV. 1 John 2:28-4:6 Characteristics of the Children of God
V. 1 John 4:7-21 The Love of God
VI. 1 John 5:1-21 Assurance of Faith