New Testament Introduction

Louis Berkhof

The First Epistle of John


It is impossible to give a satisfactory schematic representation of the contents of this letter. After the introduction, 1: 1-4, in which the apostle declares that the purpose of his ministry is to manifest the life-giving divine Word, in order that the readers may have fellowship with him and the other apostles, and through them with God and Christ, he defines the character of this fellowship and points out that, since God is light, believers also should be and walk in the light, 5-10, i. e. they should guard against sin and keep Gods commandments, 2: 1-6. He reminds the readers of the great commandment, which is at once old and new, that they should love the brethren, 7-14; and in connection with this warns them not to love the world, and to beware of the false teachers that deny the truth, 15-27.

The representation of God as light now passes over into that of God as righteous, and the writer insists that only he that is righteous can be a child of God, 2: 28—3: 6. He reminds the readers of the fact that to be righteous is to do righteousness, which in turn is identical with love to the brethren, 7-17. Once more he warns the readers against the love of the world, and points out that the commandment of God includes two things, viz, belief in Christ and love to the brethren, 18-24.

In view of the false teachers he next reminds the readers that the test of having the Spirit of God, is to be found in the true confession of Christ, in adherence to the teaching of the apostles, and in that faith in Jesus that is the condition of love and of true spiritual life, 4:1—5:12. Finally he states the object of the Epistle once more, and gives a brief summary of what he has written, 13-21.


1. The literary form of this Epistle is different from that of all the other New Testament letters, the Epistle to the Hebrews and that of James resembling it most in this respect. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews it does not name its author nor its original readers, and contains no apostolic blessing at the beginning; and in agreement with that of James it has no formal conclusion, no greetings and salutations at the end. This feature led some to deny its epistolary character; yet, taking everything into consideration, the conclusion is inevitable that it is an Epistle in the proper sense of the word, and not a didactic treatise. “The freedom of the style, the use of such direct terms as, ‘I write unto you, ‘I wrote unto you, and the footing on which writer and readers stand to each other all through its contents, show it to be no formal composition.” (Salmond) Moreover it reveals no such plan as would be expected in a treatise. The order found in it is determined by association rather than by logic, the thoughts being grouped about certain clearly related, ruling ideas.

2. The great affinity of this Epistle with the Gospel of John naturally attracts attention. The two are very similar in the general conception of the truth, in the specific way of representing things, and in style and expression. Besides there are several passages in both that are mutually explanatory, as f. i.:

John 1:1,2,4,14
John 15:12,13
John 14:16
John 8:47
John 11:51,52
John 19:34,35
John 13:34;15:10,12
John 5:32,34,36, 8:17,18


John 11:9,10;12:35
John 3:36
John 15:23,24
John 20:31
John 14:26;16:13
John 14:13,14;16:23
3:8,15 John 8:44
John 17:3

Hence many scholars assume a very intimate connection of the Epistle with the Gospel, regarding it as a kind of introduction (Lightfoot), a sort of dedicatory writing (Hausrath, Hofmann), or a practical companion (Michaelis, Storr, Eichhorn), destined to accompany the Gospel. At the same time there are differences of such a kind between the two writings, as make it seem more likely that the Epistle is an independent composition. Cf. Holtzmann, Einl. p. 478; Salmond, Hastings D. B. Art. I John, 5.

3. The truth is represented in this Epistle ideally rather than historically. This important fact is stated by Salmond concisely as follows: “The characteristic ideas of the Epistle are few and simple, they are of large significance, and they are presented in new aspects and relations as often as they occur. They belong to the region of primary principles, realities of the intuition, certainties of the experience, absolute truths. And they are given in their absoluteness. (Italics are ours). The regenerate man is one who cannot sin; Christian faith is presented in its ideal character and completeness; the revelation of life is exhibited in its finality, not in the stages of its historical realization.” Cf. especially Weiss, Biblical Theology of the N. T. .11 p. 311 if. Stevens, Johannine Theology, p. 1 if.

4. The style of the Epistle is very similar to that of the Gospel. Fundamental words and phrases are often repeated such as “truth,” “love,” “light,” “In the light,” “being born of God,” “abiding in God,” etc.; and the construction is characterized by utter simplicity, the sentences being coordinated rather than subordinated, and involved sentences being avoided by the repetition of part of a previous sentence. There is a remarkable paucity pf connecting particles, f. i. γάρ occurs only three times; δέ but nine times; μέν τε and οὖν are not found at all (while the last is of frequent occurrence in the Gospel). On the other hand ὅτι is often used, and κάι is the regular connective. In many cases sentences and clauses follow one another without connecting particles, e. g. 2: 22-24; 4:4-6, 7-10, 11-13.


The authorship of John is clearly attested by external testimony Eusebius says that Papias employed this Epistle, and also that Irenaeus often quoted from it. The last assertion is borne out by the work against heresies, in which Irenaeus repeatedly quotes the letter and ascribes it to John. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian and Origen all quote it by name; it is contained in the Muratorian Fragment and in the old Latin and Syriac Versions; and Eusebius classes it with the writings universally received by the churches. This testimony may be regarded as very strong, especially in view of the fact that the author is not named in the Epistle.

That conviction of the early church is corroborated by what internal evidence we have. All the proofs adduced for the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel also apply in the case of this Epistle, cf. LINK TO JOHN AUTHORSHIP above. The two writings are so similar that they evidently were composed by the same hand. It is true, there are some points of difference, but these divergencies are of such a kind that they altogether preclude the idea that the Epistle is the product of a forger trying to imitate John. The almost general verdict is that he who wrote the one, also wrote the other. From 1: 1-3 it is evident that the author has known Christ in the flesh; and the whole Epistle reveals the character of John as we know it from the Gospel and from tradition.

But the authenticity of the letter did not go unchallenged. In the second century the Alogi and Marcion rejected it but only for dogmatical reasons. The truth presented in it did not fit their circle of ideas. The next attack on it followed in the sixteenth century, when Joseph Scaliger declared that none of the three Epistles that bear the name of John, were written by him; and S. G. Lange pronounced our letter unworthy of an apostle. It was not until 1820, however, that an important critical assault was made on the Epistle by Bretschneider. He was followed by the critics of the Tubingen school who, however they may differ in the details of their arguments, concur in denying the Johannine authorship and in regarding the Epistle as a second century production. Some of them, such as Kostlin, Georgii, and Hilgenfeld maintain that this Epistle and the fourth Gospel were composed by the same hand, while others, as Volkmar, Zeller, Davidson, Scholten e. a. regard them as the fruit of two congenial spirits.

The main arguments against the Johannine authorship are the following: (1) The Epistle is evidently directed against second century Gnosticism, which separated in a dualistic manner knowledge and conduct, the divine Christ and the human Jesus, cf. 2: 4, 9, 11; 5 : 6, etc. (2) The letter also seems to be a polemic against Docetism another second century heresy, cf. 4: 2, 3. (3) There are references to Montanism in the Epistle, as f. i. where the writer speaks of the moral perfection of believers, 3 : 6, 9, and distinguishes between sins unto death and sins not unto death, 3:16, 17, a distinction which, Tertullian says, was made by the Montanists. (4) The difference between this Epistle and the Apocalypse is so great that it is impossible that one man should have written both.

We need not deny that the Epistle is partly an indirect polemic against Gnosticism, but we maintain that this was an incipient Gnosticism that made it’s appearance before the end of the first century in the heresy of Cerinthus, so that this does not argue against the authorship of John.—The supposed references to Docetism are very uncertain indeed; but even if they could be proved they would not point beyond the first century, for most of the Gnostics were also Docetae, and the Cerinthian heresy may be called a species of Docetism.—The representations of John have nothing in common with those of the Montanists. When he speaks of the perfection of believers, he speaks ideally and not of a perfection actually realized in this life. Moreover the “sin unto death” to which he refers, is evidently a complete falling away from Christ, and is not to be identified with the sins to which Tertullian refers, viz. “murder, idolatry, fraud, denial of Christ, blasphemy, and assuredly also adultery and fornication.”—With reference to the last argument we refer to what we have said above p. 111, and to the explanation given of the difference between the Apocalypse and the other Johannine writings below p. 321.


There is very little in the letter that can help us to determine the location of the original readers. Because there is no local coloring whatever, it is not likely that the Epistle was sent to some individual church, as Ephesus (Hug) or Corinth (Lightfoot); and since the letter favors the idea that it was written to Gentile, rather than to Jewish Christians, it is very improbable that it was destined for the Christians of Palestine (Benson). There is not a single Old Testament quotation in the Epistle, nor any reference to the Jewish nationality or the Jewish tenets of the readers. The statement of Augustine that this is John’s letter “ad Parthos” is very obscure. Some, as f. i. Grotius, inferred from it that the Epistle was written for Christians beyond the Euphrates; but most generally it is regarded as a mistaken reading for some other expression, the reading πρός παρθένους, finding most favor, which, Gieseler suggests, may in turn be a corruption of the title τὅυ παρθένου, which was commonly given to John in early times.

In all probability the correct opinion respecting the destination of this Epistle is that held by the majority of scholars, as Bleek, Huther, Davidson, Plummer, Westcott, Weiss, Zahn, Alford e. a., that it was sent to the Christians of Asia Minor generally, for (1) that was John’s special field of labor during the latter part of his life ; (2) the heresies referred to and combated were rife in that country; and (3) the Gospel was evidently written for the Christians of that region, and the Epistle presupposes similar circumstances.

We have no definite information retarding the condition of the original readers. They had evidently left behind the Church’s early struggles for existence and now constituted a recognized κοινωνία of believers, a community that placed its light over against the darkness of the world, and that distinguished itself from the unrighteous by keeping the commandments of God. They only needed to be reminded of their true character, which would naturally induce them to a life worthy of their fellowship with Christ. There are dangerous heresies abroad, however, against which they must be warned. The pernicious doctrine of Cerinthus, that Jesus was not the Christ, the Son of God, threatened the peace of their souls; and the subtle error, that one could be righteous without doing righteousness, endangered the fruitfulness of their Christian life.


1. Occasion and Purpose. Although the Epistle is not primarily and directly polemical, yet it was most likely occasioned by the dangers to which we already referred.

As to the object of the letter the author himself says: “that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us; yea, and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ,” 1: 3; and again in 5:13: “These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe in the Name of the Son of God.” The direct purpose of the author is to give his readers authentic instruction regarding the truth and reality of the things which they, especially as believers in Jesus Christ, accepted by faith; and to help them to see the natural issues of the fellowship to which they had been introduced, in order that they might have a full measure of peace and joy and life. The purpose of the writer is therefore at once theoretical and practical.

2. Time and Place. What we said above, pp. 113, 114, respecting the date of the fourth Gospel and the place of its composition, also favors the idea that this Epistle was written between the years 80-98, and at Ephesus. It is impossible to narrow down these time-limits any more. The only remaining question is, whether the Epistle was written prior to the Gospel, (Bleek, Huther, Reuss, Weiss), or the Gospel prior to the Epistle (DeWette, Ewald, Guericke, Alford, Plummer). It appears to us that the grounds adduced for the priority of the Epistle, as f. i. that a writing of momentary design naturally precedes one of permanent design; a letter of warning to particular churches, a writing like the Gospel addressed to all Christendom,—are very weak. And the arguments for the other side are almost equally inconclusive, although there is some force in the reasoning that the Epistle in several places presupposes a knowledge of the Gospel, cf. the points of resemblance referred to on p. 311 above. But even this does not carry conviction, for Reuss correctly says: “For us, the Epistle needs the Gospel as a commentary; but inasmuch as at the first it had one in the oral instruction of the author, it is not thereby proved that it is the later.” History of the N. T. I p. 237. Salmond and Zahn wisely conclude their discussion of this point with a non liquet.


The canonicity of this letter was never doutbed by the Church. Polycarp and Papias, both disciples of John, used it, and Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, directly ascribes it to John. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen and Dionysius of Alexandria all quote it by name, as a writing of the apostle John. It is referred to as John’s in the Muratorian Fragment, and is contained in the old Latin and Syriac Versions.

The abiding significance of this important Epistle is, that it pictures us ideally the community of believers, as a community of life in fellowship with Christ, mediated by the word of the apostles, which is the Word of life. It describes that community as the sphere of life and light, of holiness and righteousness, of love to God and to the brethren; and as the absolute antithesis to the world with its darkness and death, its pollution and unrighteousness, its hatred and deception. All those who are introduced into that sphere should of necessity be holy and righteous and filled with love, and should avoid the world and its lusts. They should test the spirits, whether they be of God, and shun all anti-Christian error. Thus the Epistle describes for the Church of all ages the nature and criteria of heavenly fellowship, and warns believers to keep themselves unspotted from the world.