1st John is most likely written by the author of John’s gospel, John Zebedee, the “beloved” disciple, brother of James, witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus, author also of the book of Revelation. He is also the only apostle to die a natural death (aged 94).
From a literary perspective, this short book of the bible isn’t immediately accessible to the casual reader, so don’t expect a clearly delineated introduction, development and conclusion. The author’s concern is to make a number of vital points, one after the other, connected, but not strictly linear in style. Thus, it is helpful to read the letter as a collection of individual paragraphs, as though the author is holding up the truth like a diamond and examining its beauty from different angles.
John tries to help his readers grasp the idea that they are part of a larger reality than the one they can simply see and hear and touch. This reality is the coming of the kingdom of God. He presents it to them with ideas of light and darkness, contrasting “worldly” thinking with godliness. This is consistent with John’s other writings (think about John’s gospel, or the graphic representations of the spiritual realities in Revelation).
“little children, keep yourselves from idols.”(5:21) is how John ends the letter. He does not want his readers to practise anything which does acknowledge God’s rightful place. John’s primary motivation is that God is acknowledged for who He is. Our lives must reflect an awareness of this different spiritual reality. John is concerned to explain what this spiritual reality looks like, how God commands it, Christ’s central place in it, what is truly important and what is not, how it intersects with our own limited perception of reality.
John wants Christians in his care to put away the things which prevent seeing God. He wants them to better exercise and develop their awareness of this reality, so that they will find it more and more natural to act according to this new law which governs them. Christ exemplified this in his own life. (see John 5:19 – Jesus gave them this answer: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.)
But John is also aware that Christians are engaged in a battle with their unregenerate nature, which does not want to acknowledge God. When we see our own continuing sinfulness, we are right to question whether we are truly saved, whether we are party to this new reality which God is bringing about. Indeed, sin is the very thing which is incompatible with God, because it is the thing within us which rebels against his authority, against his right to be God.
Nevertheless, John has certain powerful reassurances for those under his care. It is vital that we have certainty of our salvation, because this very certainty is what God uses to transform us. Doubt is not wrong, but God does not want us to remain in doubt any more than he wants us never to attain peace, or rest from our labour. John begins the letter by asserting the very things he and others “have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched”. Our assurance of the spiritual reality propounded in the bible has also been confirmed in the physical reality we are used to. Jesus Christ, the man whom John knew personally, was the Word made flesh.
As you read, look for ways in which we can be assured of our part in God’s redemption plan, and also ways in which we can participate in that wonderful work…the coming of God’s kingdom.