INTRODUCTION

© Rosemary Bardsley 2022

Date and authorship
The apostle John is acknowledged as the author of the Gospel of John and the three letters that bear his name. He is also the acknowledged author of Revelation. All were most likely written in the last decade of the first century AD.

The original readers
The first letter does not address any individual or group. It is a general letter written to believers.

The second letter is addressed to ‘the chosen lady and her children’, which could refer to an individual Christian lady and her children, or to a church and its members.

The third letter is addressed to John’s friend and fellow Christian, Gaius.

The reason for the letters
John wrote his first letter because of the presence of false teaching. This false teaching appears to have been a kind of embryonic Gnosticism similar to the heresy addressed in Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Gnosticism:

Believed that ‘matter’ was evil, and non-matter ('spirit') was good.

Exalted knowledge and the quest for knowledge, to the extent that salvation was believed to be through enlightenment.

Had two quite different views about morality:

Some believed that those who were enlightened were liberated from the body so it did not matter what evil you did with your body.

Others believed that because the body, being ‘matter’, was evil, its various lusts should be subdued and suppressed even to the extent of mistreating one’s body to keep it in check.

The false teaching that John addressed in his first two letters interfered with the truth that the man Jesus of Nazareth was also the eternal Son of God. Because of their views of spirit and matter they denied that God became a human being. They could not accept that One who is pure spirit would unite himself to flesh. The idea was abhorrent to them. But this denial of the union of deity and humanity in Jesus Christ is clearly a rejection of the truth that Jesus himself taught, and that John laid heavy emphasis on in his gospel.

In addition to this corruption and minimization of the truth about the reality of both the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, the false teaching was also impacting the way believers lived. The belief that only ‘spirit’ matters, and that the ‘flesh’ and what we do in the flesh is irrelevant, meant that how Christians live was not considered important. John’s correction of this wrong belief is obvious in his letters. He repeatedly stresses that the way we live either affirms or denies the statements we make about our beliefs.

When we read John’s letters, and especially the first letter, it is important to remember that all that he says has some connection to the presence of this false teaching. His purpose in writing is not to unsettle genuine believers, but rather to encourage them to be persistent in their faith in Jesus Christ and consistent in the way they lived their lives. His purpose is to expose false belief and false practice and in doing so confirm right belief and right practice. His purpose is not to make those who believe in Christ afraid they can lose their salvation, but rather to point out that the false teachers and their adherents never had salvation, because they had never truly believed in Jesus Christ.