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THE facts relating to this eminent apostle which are recorded in the New Testament are soon told. He was the son, apparently the youngest son, of Zebedee and Salome, the sister of the Virgin Mary, "the mother of the Lord." Hence he was a first cousin to Jesus, the Messiah. There is reason for the widely spread belief that he was the junior of the other apostles, and by reason of his near kinship, his youth and his natural enthusiasm, his intensity of thought, of speech, of insight, and of life, he became the special favorite of our Lord Jesus. Like the other apostles, except Judas, the traitor, John was a Galilean. The fact has a moral value, inasmuch as it separated him from the political intrigues and demoralizing speculations rife in Jerusalem. He retained the simple faith and stern heroism of earlier times. With his brother James he shared the ardor of the Galllean temperament fitly described by the epithet Boanerges, sons of thunder; which their Master early applied to them. From this we understand that they were very effective speakers, swift, startling and vehement in the utterance of the truth like fire shut up in their bones. John regards everything on its divine side. He sees all events, the past and the future, contributing to the manifestation of the sons of God, the sole hope of the world. Of this he had himself been assured by ocular evidence and inward revelation of the Son of God, like that which thrust Paul into the Christian ministry. He could say: "We have seen and do testify." He produced conviction not by labored argument, but by confident affirmation


After the ascension of Christ, the history of the apostles whom He had trained is left in the utmost obscurity. Except James, who was early killed with the persecutors' sword in Jerusalem, we know not when, or where, or how any of the Eleven died. The Acts of the Apostles briefly speaks of them collectively in its first few chapters, then it drops all except Peter and John. Soon it drops the beloved apostle and describes Peter's career only. Then it takes up the biography of Paul and continues it through the remaining fifteen chapters to his imprisonment, where the narrative abruptly and tantalizingly ends. Ask any ecclesiastical historian to designate the point where the records of the early church leave him to grope in Egyptian darkness, and he will unhesitatingly put his finger on the period following the end of the Acts of the Apostles, of which Neander says that "we have no information, nor can the total want of sources for this part of church history be at all surprising." Says Dean Farrar, "The facts of the corporate history of the early Christians, and even the closing details in the biographies of their greatest teachers, are plunged in entire uncertainty." Of this period Renan says: "Black darkness falls upon the scene; and a grim and brooding silence, like the silence of an impending storm, holds in hushed expectation of 'the day of the Lord' the awe-struck breathless church. No more books are written; no more messengers are sent; the very voice of tradition is still." We doubt the truth of the last clause. The voice of tradition was not still. It tried to fill the vacuum with its swarms of puerile conjectures and manifest falsehoods. It represents John at Rome reduced to the humble occupation of a fireman tending the furnace fire of a woman's bath-house, and on one occasion immersed in a caldron of boiling oil and handling deadly serpents without bodily harm; and Peter the apostle to the Jews for twenty-five years poaching in Paul's Gentile preserve in Rome, when there is not an atom of Scriptural proof, nor a particle of credible, contemporaneous testimony to this statement to be found in history, sacred or profane, during the first Christian century. (See Bibliotheca Sacra, Vols. XV and XVI, "Was Peter in Rome and Bishop of the Church?" for a negative answer which cannot be controverted.) We should be glad to believe the touching and beautiful tradition of John's reclaiming for Christ a convert who had so far apostatized as to become the leader of a band of robbers, but the story lacks a historic basis, as does the story of his hasty exit from a bath, lest the structure should fail upon his head by reason of the presence of the heresiarch, Cerinthus. It was widely believed after his burial that he was not dead, but sleeping in his grave till Christ should come. Tradition alleged that "the dust was stirred by the breath of the saint." This vain tradition was not needed as a fulfillment of Christ's words, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?" He did tarry among the living till Christ came. It is impossible for us to realize fully what was involved in the destruction of the Holy City for those who had been trained in Judaism. It was nothing else than the close of a divine drama, an end of the world. The old sanctuary, "the joy of the whole earth," was abandoned. Henceforth the Christian church was the sole appointed seat of the presence of God. When Jerusalem fell — an event most favorable to Christianity — Christ came, and with His coming came also the work of St. John. During the period described by John in the Apocalypse, the period of conflict and fear and shaking of nations — "things which must shortly come to pass" — before the last catastrophe, St. John had waited patiently, having doubtless fulfilled his filial office to the mother of the Lord in his own home in Galilee and the end of her earthly sojourn.


His authorship is a striking characteristic of his old age. Sacred scholars now quite generally agree that his first book, the Apocalypse, was written early in the seventh decade of the first century, at about 64 to 67 A. D., describing the events of the following few years ending with the destruction of the Holy City and the subversion of the Jewish polity in A. D. 70. The style is that of one familiar with the Hebrew attempting to write Greek for the first time. There are many deviations from accurate Greek composition. This is one of the proofs that the Revelation is St John's first essay in the Greek language.

In the tenth decade, at about 96 or 97 A. D., he wrote his Gospel, it is supposed, at the urgent solicitation of his hearers, to whom he had often rehearsed it in his preaching. His style after a residence of probably twenty years in the Greek-speaking city of Antioch is much improved. Though still using Hebrew idioms he writes with grammatical accuracy and simplicity. His Gospel is rather polemic than narrative. He begins by stating a proposition to be proven — the supreme divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Thus we have one dogmatic Gospel.

His FIRST EPISTLE was written probably in the same year, to meet the error of the denial of the real humanity of Christ through the prevalence of the Gnostic philosophy. Modern Biblical scholars, with the exception of Alford, now believe this to be the purpose of this Epistle, or treatise, as it might be styled. For a more extended account of this philosophy see the note on Gnosticism at the end of the comments on Chapter I.

His SECOND EPISTLE, second in arrangement in the New Testament volume, not necessarily in the order of time, is enigmatic in its address. It may have been entitled either "to an elect Lady" or "to the elect Kyria," or "to Electa Kyria" The general tenor of the letter inclines us to believe that it was sent not to one believer, but to a community of saints, here metaphorically addressed as a Lady just as elsewhere the church is styled "the Bride of Christ." It is hortatory rather than doctrinal, and in John's style, and is filled with his idioms respecting love, the commandments, deceivers and antichrist, Paraclete, darkness, light, life, witness, world and Word.

His THIRD EPISTLE has the appearance of a brief, private and confidential note addressed to an individual in some local church, severely denouncing by name a second individual and highly naming and highly commending a third. We cannot think that John ever intended that a letter so filled with personalities should be published. But the Providence which presided over the formation of the Holy Scriptures has for some good ends permitted its incorporation into the Sacred Canon. These purposes may have been (1) the inculcation of respect, honor and love for preachers who "for His name's sake" proclaim saving and fundamental truths, and (2) a needful safeguard of the pastor against discouragement because some ambitious brother Longpurse has assumed to dictate who shall be received as members or workers, and who shall be excommunicated, and (3) the need of a general superintendent to commend the humiliated pastor, and to teach such an usurper better manners.


There is in the New Testament no hint of John' s residence in Ephesus, but there is ample indirect proof of this fact. Christianity from the beginning of its conquest of the world entrenched itself in those great centres of influence, the great cities of the Orient, Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Corinth and Rome. Paul found a small society of Christians in Ephesus, and by his years of labor greatly enlarged and strengthened it. The place was of sufficient importance to attract one of the Twelve to succeed the apostle to the Gentiles. The trade of the Aegean Sea was concentrated in its port. Since Patmos, the place of John's exile, is only a day's sail from Ephesus, "the metropolis of Asia," it is quite probable that this city was the place of his abode both before and after his sojourn on that rugged island; and doubtless he was recalling the scenes he had looked upon in the Ephesian markets when he gave that gorgeous description of the merchandise of Babylon in Rev. xviii. 12, 13, "of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet; and all thyine wood, and every vessel of ivory, and of brass, and iron, and marble; and cinnamon, and spice, and incense, and ointment, and frankincense, and wine and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and cattle and sheep; and merchandise of horses and chariots and slaves, and souls of men." The last two items intimate the terrible wickedness of the times, especially in great commercial cities. While no contemporary writer testifies to John's residence in Ephesus, there is testimony to this fact by a number of subsequent writers, such as Justin Martyr, probably within fifty years of John's death, Irenaeus, Polycrates, Polycarp find Apollonius. We will not multiply witnesses to prove what few, if any, deny.

The church in Ephesus in John's day must have been quite large, since it had enjoyed the labor of Apollos, Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, Trophimus, Timothy and the family of Onesiphorus. Paul left it well organized under presbyters, whom he afterwards addressed at Miletus. Such was the environment of John in his last days. For the splendor and magnificence of idolatry in Ephesus see our note on the last words of this Epistle, "Guard yourselves from idols."


The relation of the First Epistle to the Fourth Gospel is that of an application to a sermon, Or that of a comment to a history. The Epistle presupposes that the persons addressed possessed knowledge of the Gospel communicated either by John's voice or his pen. The Gospel is a summary of his sermons to audiences ignorant of the facts and truths of Christianity. The First Epistle is a summary of his exhortations to believers to practice the precepts of Christ stated in such a way as to guard them against the evils of religious error. There are numerous and manifest resemblances, both in the thought and the form, between this Epistle and the Gospel of John. There are also striking differences. The theme of the Gospel, clearly and concisely stated in the first verse is the supreme divinity (
doxa) of the Logos, who "was with God," hence distinct in personality, and who "was God," being identical with Him in nature. The burden of the Epistle is the real and perfect humanity (sarx) of Jesus Christ announced in its opening sentence, which appeals to three of the five senses, in proof that he was not a phantom, but a man composed of flesh, blood and bones, — a veritable man, the God-man. It has been well said that the proposition demonstrated in the evangel is "Jesus is the Christ," and that proved in the Letter is "the Christ is Jesus." In the latter case the apostle presents his argument from the divine to the human, from the spiritual and ideal to the historical, the natural position of an evangelist and historian; in the former the writer argues from the human to the divine, from the historical to the ideal and spiritual, which is the natural position of the preacher.

With respect to the doctrine of the last things there is this fundamental difference: "In the Gospel the doctrine of the 'coming' of the Lord (xxi. 22, xvi. 3) and of 'the last day' (vi. 40, 44) and of 'the judgment' (v. 28, 29), are touched upon generally. In the Epistle the 'manifestation' of Christ (ii. 28) and His 'presence' stand out as clear facts in the history of the world. He comes, even as he came 'in flesh' (2 John 7); and 'antichrists' precede his coming (1 John ii. 18,19)." (Bishop Westcott.)

Still more full and distinct in the Epistle than in the Gospel is the doctrine of the atonement. This is in harmony with the general law of the progress of doctrine in the New Testament that doctrines which are in germ form in the Gospels are fully developed in the Epistles of Paul and the other apostles. For an extended exhibition of the doctrine of atonement see concluding note to chapter fifth.

Another difference exists in the fact that the Lord's words are in the First Epistle molded by His disciple into aphorisms, their historic setting having entirely vanished. The Epistle is generally direct, abstract and destitute of rhetorical imagery. There is also what Bishop Westcott styles "a decisive difference in the atmosphere of the two books. The Epistle deals freely with the truths of the Gospel in direct conflict with the characteristic perils of his own time; in the Gospel he lives again in the presence of Christ and of the immediate enemies of Christ, while he brings out the universal significance of events and teachings not fully understood at the time."

The similarity of the Epistle and the Gospel and their dissimilarity also will be seen when we study a passage in each containing the same fundamental truth: "And this is life eternal, that they should know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ." (John xvii. 3.) Here eternal life is the progressive recognition of God through an increasing knowledge of His Son. The Gospel gives the historic revelation of God. But the Epistle goes further; "And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life." (1 John v.20.) Here we have the revelation as it has been apprehended in the life of the individual believer and of the church through the vitalizing power of the great gift of the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit, first in regeneration and secondly in perfect love.

Nearly all the versions make a difference between the meaning of Paraclete in the Gospel and in the Epistle. John is the only Scriptural writer who uses this Greek word. It occurs four times in the Gospel and is translated "Comforter," from a Latin word signifying strengthener. But the best Greek scholars insist that the form of the word indicates a passive meaning, "the near called one," or the one "called to" our aid. The word "advocate" from the Latin "
ad" to and "voco," to call, is the exact equivalent of Paraclete, from "para," to, and "kaleo," to call. "Advocate" is the rendering in 1 John ii. 1, as it also should be rendered in all places in the Gospel.

The classical use of "
paraclete" in this passive sense is beyond all dispute. If the term were uniformly translated "advocate" we would ever make prominent the beautiful and affecting idea that the Holy Spirit advocates God's cause with us below, and the ascended Christ pleads our cause with God above.


In the estimation of deeply spiritual minds the First Epistle of John holds the highest place in that series of inspired writings which constitute the Bible. In the order of divine revelations it is probably the last. It may very properly be regarded as the interpreter of the whole series. It not only awakens the highest hopes of the believer, but it also confirms and satisfies them by showing our privilege of fellowship with the choicest spirits on the earth and our cloudless and continuous communion with the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit given to all who here and now unwaveringly trust in our risen Savior and Lord. The Epistle furnishes a lofty ideal of that Christian society or brotherhood called the Church, and it insists that its present realization is a glorious possibility. If the love of God and man which flames throughout this book were burning brightly — not smoldering — in the heart of every professor of faith in Christ, all secular sodalities would lose their attraction, disintegrate and disappear before the superior magnetism of the Bride of Christ the Church.

While in all versions of the New Testament this product of John's pen is called an epistle, it has no characteristics of an epistle. It has no date, no place of writing, no address, no salutation, no subscription, no trace of the author except by inference and no hint of any special destination. Yet it is brimful and running over with personal feeling such as would characterize a large and warm heart of a retired, aged pastor writing a farewell, pastoral address to his beloved flock exposed to destructive errors. It is commonly believed that this Epistle and the Fourth Gospel were written at the same time, or nearly the same, in the last decade of the first century, probably at Ephesus, after the destruction of Jerusalem. The tone of it is not dread of the hostility of the world, but of its seductions. The historical setting of this book must have been when the battles between the law and the gospel had already become ancient history. But the still more vital question was pressing for an answer — the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some took the advanced, liberalistic view of today, that our God-man had no valid claim to supreme divinity, that He was a mere man, while others admitting His Godhead, denied the reality of His humanity and pronounced Him a mere phantom, that He only seemed to be a man with a material organism. These were called the
Docetoe or seemers. Still another class, Cerinthus and his followers, supposed that Jesus had two human parents and was a common man till His baptism, when the divinity was united with Him in so loose a way that it left Him before He died. John living to see the time when both the divinity and the humanity of his Master were publicly denied wrote the Fourth Gospel to meet the first error, and this pastoral address to counteract the second. To protect the church against these deadly errors, John does not directly assail them by name, but he indirectly meets them by unfolding the truth respecting Christ's person and mission. He does not formally construct an argument, but rather announces the truths intuitively seen and felt. He repeats with emphasis that the Son of God came in the flesh. This is the key of this Epistle. John shows that the bottom drops out of Christianity if Christ's body was not real. The outcome would be a phantom Savior, nailed to a sham cross, dying only a seeming death, and then rising from the dead only in appearance.

No wonder that John should declare that the denial of the incarnate Son amounts to a denial of the Father.

In modern times we have substantially the same errors to combat. Realism in philosophy reduces Christianity to mere humanitarianism, while idealism, such as the so-called Christian Science, when applied to the incarnation, makes it a mere seeming. Thus the corner stone of the Christian evidences, the resurrection of Christ, is undermined, while the central Christian doctrine, the atonement, on which all the hopes of the penitent believer are built, evaporates in thin air, because there was no real body to suffer and die. In addition to these pernicious errors which would subvert fundamentals, we in modern times must oppose a most deadly perversion of a passage in this very Epistle making the saintly John teach the monstrous contradiction that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin, but if any testifies to the experience of such a perfect riddance of sin, he deceives himself and the truth is not in him. Thus John, who writes this pastoral address, "that ye sin not," is made to plead for continuance in sin and to rate as deceived, if not deceivers, all teachers of the doctrine of entire sanctification in this life and all professors of its blessed experience.

To present a harmonious interpretation of the First Epistle of John is our purpose, in order that it may realize the aim of the beloved apostle, the promotion of Christian holiness on the earth.


It is exceedingly difficult to analyze the Epistle and discover the author's plan. Some scholars think that he had no clear and systematic arrangement of his ideas when he began to write. They assert that it is "an unmethodized effusion of the pious sentiments and reflections of a prattling old man." Even so keen an intellect as Calvin's found it impossible to find any distinct lines of cleavage in what he regarded as a confused compound of doctrine and exhortation. But modern scholars, deeming this opinion derogatory to this great apostle, have set about the work of discovering the subtle links of thought which constitute divisions into orderly parts. They do not announce the result of their labors with much confidence, but admit that the transitions from one section of the subject to another, even in the main divisions, are very gradual, "like the changes in dissolving views." Few writers have been perfectly satisfied with the plan (of the Epistle) which they profess to have discovered; and still fewer have satisfied their readers. It is like finding exact boundaries between the constellations. But most students will agree that it is better to read the Epistle with some scheme which is tolerably correct than without the guidance of any.

Finding a superior scheme already prepared, I have thought it best to borrow it, with the slight addition of the bracketed words, to indicate pre-Christian sins.

Plan of Dr. A. Plummer in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges:


  • The subject-matter of the Gospel employed in the Epistle (i. 1-3).
  • The purpose of the Epistle (1.4).

i. 5 - ii. 28. GOD IS LIGHT.

i. 5 - ii. 11. What Walking in the Light involves: the Condition and Conduct of the Believer.
  • Fellowship with God and with the Brethren (i. 5 - 7)
  • Consciousness and confession of sin [committed before forgiveness] (i. 8 - 10).
  • Obedience to God by Imitation of Christ (ii. 1 - 6).
  • Love of the Brethren (ii. 7-11).
ii. 12 - 28. What Walking in the Light excludes: the Things and Persons to be avoided.
  • Three-fold Statement of Reasons for writing (ii. 12 - 14).
  • Things to be avoided: the World and its Ways (ii. 15 - 17).
  • Persons to be avoided: Antichrists (ii. 18 - 26).
  • [Transitional.] The Place of Safety: Christ (ii. 27,28)

ii. 29—v. 12. GOD IS LOVE.

ii. 29 - iii. 24. The Evidence of Sonship: Deeds of Righteousness before God.
  • The Children of God and the Children of the Devil (ii. 29 - iii. 12).
  • Love and Hate: Life and Death (iii. 13 - 24).
iv. 1 - v. 12. The Sources of Sonship: Possession of the Spirit as shown by Confession of the Incarnation.
  • The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error (iv. 1 - 6).
  • Love Is the Mark of the Children of Him who is Love (iv. 7 - 21).
  • Faith Is the Source of Love, the Victory over the World, and the Possession of Life (v.1 - 12).

v. 13 - 21. CONCLUSION.

  • Intercessory Love the Fruit of Faith (v. 13-17).
  • The Sum of the Christian's Knowledge (v. 18-20).
  • Final Injunction (v.21).

As a key to this plan we are to consider that the confession and conscious pardon of sin and obedience to God are necessary to fellowship with God and love to Him and to the brethren which excludes love of the world. This is passing away, as is shown by the appearance of antichrists. Abiding in Christ insures against passing away. The words "begotten of God" suggest the sonship of believers, implying mutual love, and the indwelling of Christ to which the spirit testifies. The mention of spirit suggests that there are bad spirits which must be distinguished from the good. The topic of mutual love suggests faith as its original source, especially as shown in intercessory prayer. The whole closes with a summary of the knowledge on which the ethics of the Epistle is based and with a caveat against idolatry.


The most marked feature of the style is the constant occurrence of moral and spiritual antitheses, each thought has its opposite, each affirmative its negative; light and darkness, life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood, children of God and children of the devil, sin unto death and sin not unto death, the spirit of truth and the spirit of error, love of the Father and love of the world.


The Epistle is not a designed compendium of systematic theology or handbook of Christian doctrine for catechetical training, being written not for the instruction of the ignorant, but expressly for those who "know the truth." Yet "in no other book in the Bible are so many cardinal doctrines touched with so firm a hand." No other book gives a formal definition of sin, and none so often alludes to the atonement in the blood of Christ presented in its various phases, no other so magnifies love and identifies it with the divine essence, and no other so distinctly teaches Christian perfection attainable by all believers who here and now claim their full heritage in Christ, perfect love shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit. John writes as if conscious that he is writing the last statement of Christian truth in epistolary form, just as he had written the last of the Gospels. "Each point is laid before us with the awe-inspiring solemnity of one who writes under the profound conviction that 'it is the last hour.' None but an apostle, perhaps none but the last surviving apostle, could have such magisterial authority in the utterance of Christian truth. Every sentence seems to tell of the conscious authority and resistless, though unexerted, strength of one who has 'seen, and heard, and handled the Eternal Word, and who knows that his witness is true."'