Introductory Comments to the First Letter of John
The New Testament has an interesting structure to it. We begin with four tellings of the story of Jesus – three bearing some similarities and the fourth being dramatically different in significant ways. These accounts of the life of Jesus are followed by an account of the development of the early church, volume two of the Gospel of Luke. One of the central characters to emerge from that work is a man named Paul, whose dramatic conversion and subsequent ministry comprise a significant section of Acts. Letters from this Paul to churches he has founded or to leaders he has worked with follow. We have discovered that not all the letters that bear Paul’s name came from Paul’s hand, but most likely they were influenced by the Pauline understanding of the Christian faith. So significant a figure was Paul in the early church that even the general letter to “the Hebrews” gets attributed to him.
Following the letters attributed to Paul, we come to letters attributed to other important figures in the early church – James,Peter and John. Again, these letters were probably not written by the apostles Peter and John, or by James the brother of Jesus, but by others influenced by their ministry. In the case of John, the letters bearing this name seem to have some relationship with the gospel which also bears his name. In the early church, then, there was in addition to a Pauline stream, a Johanine stream. The name of John is also associated with the final book of the New Testament, The Revelation, but we will deal with that in due time. Because of differences as well as similarities not only between the Gospel and I John, but among the five writings associated with John, many find it more acceptable to speak of a Johanine circle of Christianity, out of which the writings came without having to argue single authorship (People’s New Testament Commentary).
So I John comes out of this Johanine circle, but what kind of document is it? It has few of the features we usually associate with ancient letters, or epistles. Some think it is a “general letter” intended for a number of congregations. Others think it is a homily (a sermon), and others suggest a religious tract. (New Interpreters Study Bible). If we are not sure of the nature of the work, we are equally uncertain as to the place of writing or the intended audience. If it is to a congregation, it is to a congregation that has experienced a division of some kind. The writer seeks to reassure the readers that they are on the right course, and that those who have left have misunderstood important features of the Christian faith and life. The disputes seem to be about the nature of Jesus, the nature of love, and the nature of sin. Those who had separated themselves seemed to deny that Jesus had actually been a human being. Furthermore, the writing suggests that these separatists had considered themselves sinless. It is not simply their misguided theology that is the problem. More significantly, the problem is a lack of love, or of the right kind of love.
This work seems to reflect some knowledge of the Gospel of John (there are a number of shared themes and images), and so must have been written later than that work, sometime between 95 and 110 CE. I will give the final introductory words to Eugene Peterson, from his introduction to the John letters in The Message. The two most difficult things to get straight in life are love and God. More often than not, the mess people make of their lives can be traced to failure or stupidity or meanness in one or both of these areas. The Bible says, and Christians believe, that the two subjects are connected. If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated. Let’s see how this writer brings these two significant life themes together.
I John 1
I John 1:1-4: The letter is attributed to John, but where is his name? It is nowhere to be found. The letter comes from an “apostolic we” – from a person who understands himself within the apostolic stream of Christian faith. The resemblance between the beginning of this work and the beginning of the Gospel of John are striking. In the Gospel, the beginning is the beginning of creation – here “the beginning” is the coming of the Christ – the Christ who has been heard and seen and touched. In the Christ came new life, and the intent of the author is that the readers may continue in fellowship in the Christ community, which is also fellowship with Jesus Christ and the God they all refer to as “Father.” In this community, there is joy.
The “we” of these declarations refers not merely to the original apostles, but to the whole community of Christian faith. About 180 CE Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon in France, could still write, “We would not be able to know, unless we had seen our Master and hear his voice with our own ears.” Of course this was no claim to be a literal eyewitness, but this “ecclesial we” was the insistence that membership in the church means belonging to a community that has personal, visual, tangible experience of the presence of Christ. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
I John 1:5-10: What should life be like in this community, this fellowship of joy? If our fellowship is with God, then our lives should have “god-like” qualities, or at least that is the hope toward which we strive. The author uses images of light and darkness, truth and lies, to describe what life should be like for those in the fellowship. According to the writer, talk is never enough. Faith shapes life, forms us in a way of living. Those who claim light but walk in darkness are living a lie. Walking in the light continues Christians in fellowship with each other. The community is one where forgiveness is experienced. “Since according to the ritual language of Judaism the life is in the blood, biblical writers would speak meaningfully of the blood without fear of charges of superstition or cannibalism” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In our day and time, such language does not always speak as meaningfully. The point is not the imagery, the point is forgiveness. There is a tension in these verses. People in the Jesus community were supposed to walk in the light, and yet by mentioning forgiveness, the writer concedes that even those who seek to live the Jesus way sometimes fall short and need forgiveness. To be a community of forgiveness is a part of walking in the light.
The author speaks in even stronger terms. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” On the other hand, “if we confess our sins, the one who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
This brief chapter speaks powerfully to our own Christian experience. We seek to walk in the light, to live in new ways because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. We don’t want simply to stumble around in the dark. Yet we know that we do stumble. We trip and fall. We fall short. We act unlovingly sometimes. We fail to do justice and make peace. That is part of our reality, and so the Jesus community, the Christ community, the Christian church is always a place where we are seeking to live more god-like lives admitting along the way that we are not there yet.