All passages of Scripture must be understood in context, but some by their nature require more contextualization than others. First John is one such book. Without an understanding of the errors it was written to refute, the necessary result is always going to be more error.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:1-4).
Summary of the Text
John begins with the same kind of reference he uses in his gospel, with an emphasis on the beginning (arche), which should make us think of Genesis 1:1. But this person who was from the beginning was someone that John and his fellows had heard, had seen, gazed at, and touched (v. 1). That person was the Word of life. That Word was manifested to them (v. 2). What they had witnessed, they now declared, so that the listeners could come into fellowship with them, and then discover that their fellowship was with the Father and the Son (v. 3). This was all written out carefully, so that our joy might be full (v. 4).
Occasion of the Letter
Those who were causing the problems in Ephesus here were characterized in three ways by the apostle John. They were false prophets (4:1), they were deceivers (2 Jn. 7), and lastly they are antichrists (2:18, 22; 4:3, 2 Jn. 7). These false teachers had broken with the true church and had “gone out into the world” (4:1). This break showed that they were not really of the truth (2:19).
Those believers who had not gone out with the false teachers were in fact overcomers (4:4), but they were overcomers who had been unsettled by the battle and who were greatly in need of encouragement. This is the pastoral encouragement that John provides in this letter.
Characteristics of the Lie
From the internal evidence of this letter, and from the external evidence we have about Ephesus in the first century, we can piece together a pretty good understanding of the heresy John was attacking.
The false teachers had both a doctrinal problem (2:26) and an ethical/moral problem (3:7). The doctrinal problem was that they denied the incarnation of Jesus. The ethical problem was that they claimed to be able to be “in the light” while taking some kind of weak view of their sinfulness and sins.
As it happens, we know a good deal about this brand of heresy in Ephesus at this time. The leader of the opposition against the apostle John in Ephesus was a man named Cerinthus. Cerinthus was, I believe, the antichrist. He was a leader of an early Gnostic group. Gnosticism was characterized by two great features—the impurity of matter and the supremacy of knowledge.
The first led them to deny the incarnation, which is in effect the materialization of the eternal one. Their arrogance and pride over their “inside knowledge” led them to their lovelessness and to their lawlessness. Hence, we see John attack the heresy of the Cerinthus at every key point. Christ is the very Son of God. We must walk in love. We must keep God’s commandments. We must turn away from every form of lawlessness.
Do not confuse the beast of Revelation with the antichrist of 1 John. They are both bad men, but they are very different kinds of bad men. A beast is a savage persecutor of the church from outside, an out-of-control despot who hates the people of God. An antichrist is a smooth talking false teacher, one who weasels his way into the church and introduces the contagion of heresy. In modern terms, a beast would be someone like Stalin. An antichrist would be a liberal Methodist bishop, although I don’t have a particular one in mind. The former savages the body of Christ on earth. The latter denies that God assumed a body on earth.
We Sin Downhill
When false teachers introduce absurd errors, and apparently sane people go for them, what is going on? If I am talking to someone who is about to go for some nonsense, the question always to ask is “what’s the pay out?” What else is going on? The answer is that the devil functions with bribes. He offers intense short term pleasures, the central one being the sensation of absolute freedom (1 Jn. 3:4). All you have to do is agree to the long-term covenants that end with an inchoate and dissolute mind. This is called selling your soul to the devil. “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 16:25).
Life and Doctrine, Doctrine and Life
Remember the context of this letter. John is not addressing a tormented Christian, alone in his room, wrestling with a troubled conscience over some sin or affliction in his life. John is not addressing the sensitive believer in the midst of a panic attack. He is talking about a group of false teachers who have an utter disregard for the commands of God.
In John’s mind, these issues are to be understood in terms of light and darkness; he is not discussing the twilight. His absolutism is refreshing in a relativistic era, in which our thinkers and theologians want all cats to be gray.
We focus on the ethical—love your brother (1 Jn. 2:9). We focus on the doctrinal—Christ is God in the flesh (1 Jn. 2:22-23). A denial of either is equally fatal. It does not matter whether you have leprosy of the heart or leprosy of the head.
Hold it all together this way. Jesus of Nazareth is God, and God is love.