An American Commentary on the New Testament

Edited by Hovey, Alvah

Introduction to the First Epistle of John

For the sake of giving as much space as possible for the commentary which follows, the Introduction will be made brief. And this is the less to be regretted because there is no part of the New Testament whose authorship, purpose, and destination, are better settled among Christian students. If there is more question as to the other two Epistles, the whole matter of debate lies within a very small compass. Besides, some of the questions, which might under other circumstances be treated here, are sufficiently answered in the Introduction to the Gospel of John.


The reasons for supposing John the apostle to have been the author of the First Epistle are abundant and conclusive. Although the name of the author does not occur in the writing itself, yet it is found attached to the early manuscript copies, which is an external testimony of no small value. Besides, Polycarp, an immediate disciple of John, quotes language from the Epistle, which naturally suggests not only its genuineness, but its Johannean authorship. Eusebius says that Papias, also a hearer of John and a companion of Polycarp, made use of it. Irenaeus cites the Epistle as the work of John. Clement of Alexandria repeatedly does the same. This authorship is likewise indorsed by Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, Athanasius, and Eusebius. There is besides the witness of Muratori's fragment and of the Peschito. "After the time of Eusebius," says Alford, "general consent pronounced the same verdict. We must join with Lücke in saying that incontestably our Epistle must be numbered among those canonical books which are most strongly upheld by ecclesiastical tradition."

The internal evidence of this Epistle being the writing of John is also important. It has that deeply contemplative manner, that type of spiritual intuitiveness, that refulgence of the love principle, that combination of tenderness and severity, which one would sooner refer to John than to any other of the primitive Christian men whose personal character is brought to our knowledge in the gospels or in tradition. One cannot surrender himself to the deeper thought and spirit of the Epistle, or dwell meditatively upon the words and style, without a conviction coming like an inspiration that the author was one who had a wonderfully receptive and absorbing nature, and who had stood in a relation of some peculiar personal intimacy with Christ, so as to speak and think more exactly as he die than any other of his witnesses. And who of all the twelve fits into these conditions like John, the beloved disciple? Then there is the obvious and very marked similarity between the style of this Epistle and that of the gospel bearing the name of John, which we do not need to illustrate. If John was the author of the Fourth Gospel he was, beyond all doubt, the author of the Epistle.


Assuming that this writing is an epistle, or letter, and not a mere treatise, as its pronouns of the second person, its familiar epistolary style, and its elasticity of manner, sufficiently prove, we ask, "For whom was it prepared?" The immediate readers for whom it was intended must have been, in part at least, converts from heathenism, and persons with whose Christian history the writer had personal acquaintance. They must have been persons having already an advanced knowledge of doctrinal truth and a long experience in church life — persons situated where the gospel had been planted long enough to allow of a considerable development of positive heresies. There is evidently a philosophizing or Greek spirit in the society where the letter goes, if not on the part of the readers themselves. The letter seems designed, too, to reach not a single church, but the larger Christian constituency embraced in a circle of churches. These considerations, and others, lead us to think of the great body of Christians in the churches of Asia Minor, and to a certain extent those on the other side of the Ĉgean Sea, as the readers especially addressed. The letter was an encyclical epistle for the great circle of Christians, upon whom the writer looked out with personal interest and knowledge. All this agrees with the Ephesian residence of the Apostle John in the latter portion of his life. Augustine's idea that the letter was addressed particularly to the Parthians must have been a misapprehension, or others may have misunderstood him. The presence of the term in the writings of this Father is satisfactorily explained in several ways, without understanding it to limit the destination of the Epistle to a single church or locality. No other preceding or contemporary writer lends the slightest encouragement to such a view.


When we have reached a conclusion as to the author and destination of the Epistle, it is easy to form a somewhat satisfactory opinion as to the time when it was composed. That it was written after the Gospel of John is generally conceded. Again and again it assumes, on the part of its readers, an acquaintance with the facts of the gospel narrative. In several instances it utters, in a condensed way, things already stated in fuller language in the Gospel. And as a rule, as Lücke says, the shorter and more concentrated expression of one and the same writer is the later. The Epistle was undoubtedly written in the last decade of the apostle's life, not earlier than A. D. 90. The assumed mature experience of the readers, the well-defined antichristian error already developed, the long-established personal relations between writer and readers, the indescribable tenderness that breathes in the letter, as of one far on in the school of Christ, together with the child-relation to the writer in which all the readers are placed, • point almost certainly to the late period to which we have assigned the composition.

We leave questions of style, objects, contents, and deep inward connection, to be answered by the commentary itself.