Introduction: An Exegetical Approach to I John

An Exegetical Approach to I John

John’s letters were written to Christians who lived in a different culture and spoke a different language from our own.  Consequently, we must depend on translation unless we are Greek language scholars.  Our nature, as the reader, is that we are prone to be influenced in our reading and interpretation of scripture by our previous understanding of the document and our own culture.  For this reason we need to control our study by diligently applying a few Biblical principles of interpretation.

Since the Apostle John addressed a different issue in his third letter, we will make an “all new” approach in our exegesis of III John.  His second letter is closely related to the main issue in the first letter; however, there is a divine principle we will want to consider in a separate study of II John.  The following principles are the minimal for reading a New Testament letter:

Principle I: Historical analysis.

Please read I John as a letter; that is, read it from beginning to the end.  We abide by this principle for reading the letters we receive by post but, for some strange reason, most people often abandon this principle when they read the letters in the Bible.  This study will apply the common principles for reading a letter we all use each time we receive a letter.  We want to strive to see the recipients as the Apostle John viewed them in their situation and spiritual condition at the time he wrote.  The questions we will be asking of the text as we move from thought to thought are as follows:

Did the recipients have a problem?  If so, what was their main problem?  Did it involve a doctrinal issue or was it a spiritual growth problem?  Naturally, we can say either of these problems could lead to the other, but we will want to understand which one the author is striving to solve.  This will be the main problem.  If it was doctrinal then what was its origin?  Did it come from outside or from within the church?  Finally, what was the depth of their problem(s)?  For our answers to these questions we begin and end our search in John’s letters.  Our ultimate aim is to learn the life principles Jesus wants us to garner, so we can apply the divine principles to the issues we may encounter.

We would not want to “turn to” commentaries until after we have formed our own hypothesis.  Commentaries may help us broaden our view of the problem but the solution must come from the letter; therefore, we must attain the same view of the recipients the author possessed.  Christian theology, ethic and practice are understood in the “task solving” context of the letters.  We read them in context with and “along beside” the other documents in the New Testament.

For instance, Jesus introduced many theologies, ethics and practices for God’s children in His kingdom.  We can find them recorded in the four Gospels.  Luke’s narratives in Acts reveal how Jesus Christ, with the assistance of God’s Holy Spirit, caused the kingdom teachings to become a historical reality in the first century after Jesus’ took His place as Prince and Savior (Acts 5:31).  The details about most of Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, and activated in Acts by the apostles, can only be fully understood by a study of the letters in the New Testament.

We have divisions in the Christian community in the world today about theology, ethic and practice.  This division, for the most part, has its root in bad interpretation.

The foregoing exegetical points are from the book entitled, “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth,” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.   Academic Books Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.

I.  Historical analysis.

The following is information we can understand, or we may consider, concerning “what was going on” where John’s first and second letters were received.

1.  The antichrist had identified themselves as members of the church before they went out (I John 2:19).  Apparently, the antichrist denied Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ (I John 2:22; 4:2; II John 7).  They did not believe the Christ came in the flesh.  There was a prevalent heresy called Docetism that had been used by Satan to attack the churches during the time John wrote.  The antichrist may have believed in Jesus Christ but they wanted to say it merely “seemed like” His body was flesh (4:2; 5:5 – 12).  The Greek word docet means “it seems like.”  This notion came from the Greek and Indian philosophies about the dual nature of life.  Docetism was an attempt to describe the inner-outer nature of human beings in relation to good and evil without the help of God.  The antichrist may have claimed to be holy and righteous in spite of the fact that they did not accept the blood of Jesus as their sin offering (1:8-10).  It appears the antichrist claimed fellowship with God, the Father (1:6; 2:23; 4:2, 15; 5:20, 21).

2.  They went out from the recipients; however, they were still trying to lead the church astray at the time John wrote his letters (2:26, 27; II John 10).  The antichrist may have claimed to have more information than had been taught by the apostles.  They may have claimed to have in their possession a higher level of insight of truth than the members of the church who did not go out.  They may have claimed a higher source for their knowledge (4:6).  John made the point that the recipients of his letter had the full gospel.  This letter was directed to the Christians who did not go out in order to help them know the problem was with those who left and not with themselves.  John wanted the church to know they were doing fine if “the anointing you received remains in you.”  2:27.  “Anointing” has been translated from the Greek word chrisma.    “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.”  2:20.  In this context anointing means they received their divine information via the Holy Spirit, perhaps through John.  See the Apostles Paul’s claim in I Cor. 2:10-13; II Cor. 3:4-6.

II: Literary Analysis.

What did the author say to the recipients’ situation?  If they had a problem, how did he seek to help them solve it?  What were his tools and method?  We must understand the problem in order to properly understand the author’s divine solution.  If we conclude they had a specific problem but the author appears to be giving the solution to a different problem, we need to re-think our hypothesis.  A divinely inspired author will always be struggling to solve the problem(s) he perceives exist with the recipients.  By the grace of God’s word both the problem and the answer is presented for our consideration and application to our own Christian development.  God’s words are the truth about everything mankind needs to know about why and how He created us.

The recipients of John’s first letter appeared to be in need of help to restore their confidence about their relationship to God.  He worked very hard to bolster their spirits throughout his letter.  John’s letters were written for the benefit of the Christians who did not “go out.”  We can understand his intent from the following scriptures:

A.  First let us hear John tell us why he wrote:

1:4.  “We write this to make our (your, KJV) joy complete.”  The difference in the translations may be due to manuscript differences. 

2:8.  “Yet I am writing you a new command.”

2:12-14.   See John’s poetry.

2:21.  “I do not write because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.”

5:13.  “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

B.  Now let us see how the word “confidence” has been used.  Confidence has been translated from the Greek word “parrhesia.”  It means – openly, plainness.  It has been translated boldness in Acts 28:31.  John’s use of the word “confidence” describes the quality of the relationship faithful Christians can enjoy with God, the Father of our spirits, through Jesus Christ (I Cor. 8:6; Heb 12:9).

2:28.  “And now, dear children, continue in Him, so that when He appears we may be confident and unashamed before Him at His coming.”

3:21.   “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.”

4:17.  “In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the Day of Judgment.”

5:14.  “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”

III.  Students of John’s letter must know what the recipients knew.

The English word “know” has been translated from the Greek word ginosko in the following scriptures.  It is used in the sense of “realizing.”  It suggests there is a relationship between the person knowing and the object known.

2:3.  “We know (ginoskomen) we have come to know (eginoskomen) Him if we obey His commands.”

2:5, 6.  “This is how we know (ginoskomen) we are in Him: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus walked.”

The Greek word oida has been translated “know” in the following scriptures.  The prefix and suffix will change according to the usage.  It means “to have seen or perceived.”  Thus, oida means this theology had already influenced the recipients’ paradigms.  Paradigm, in this context, means the model we use for seeing and the interpretation of a given situation.  The theology and ethic John presented in the thought where he used “you know” (oida) was already forming some of the church members’ “road maps” for seeing, understanding and explaining life.  This same theology or ethic also became their value system for learning the other theologies and ethics John presented in the thought where he used the word “know” translated from “ginosko.”

2:21.  “I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.”

2:29.  “If you know (oida) that He is righteous, you know (ginosko) that everyone who does (does – Greek, poieo – translated practices in NASB) what is right has been born of Him.”

3:2.   But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

3:5   “But you know that He appeared so that He might take away our sins.”

3:14        “We know we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.”

3:15.      “… And you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.”

 Know has been translated from “ginosko” in the following scriptures.

 3:16.   “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us.”

 3:19.  “This then is how we know that we belong to truth, …”

3:24.  “And this is how we know He lives in us: We know it by the Spirit He gave us.”

4:2.  “And this is how you can recognize (ginoskete) the Spirit of God.”

4:6.  “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us.  This is how we recognize (ginoskomen) the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

4:13.  “We know that we live in Him, and He in us because He has given us of His Spirit.”

4:16.  “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.”

5:2.  “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands.”

Know has been translated from “oida” in the following Scriptures.

5:13.   “… So you may know you have eternal life.”

5:15.   “And if we know that He hears us – whatever we ask – we know we have what we asked of Him.”

5:18.  “We know that anyone born of God does not continue in sin; …”

5:19.  “We know we are children of God, and the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”

5:20.  “We know (oida) also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding (dianoia means deep thought or disposition – the exercise of one’s mind, understanding and imagination) so that we may know (ginoskomen) Him who is true.”

IV.  We must follow the style of the writer.

It may help us to note the transitional words or phrases in John’s letter.  We need to be aware of the beginning and end of a thought.  In some instances we will be confronted with complex thoughts.

Introduction: I John 1:1-4.  John opened his letter with a personal description of the quality of life for members of the church; Christians who are in fellowship with God.  Fellowship is the transitional word John used to lead us from the introduction to the remainder, or body, of the letter.  Please read John’s letter in detail as you check out the suggestive transitional words.   In this introduction we will consider three divisions:

A.  The first part of the letter:  I John 1:5 – 2:17.

 John’s transitional word to the first paragraph, thought, or block of scripture in this part is:


 I John 1:5-7.        God is light.  Sin is the transitional word to John’s next thought.


1:8 – 2:2.  Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice for those who confess our sins and walk in the light.  No one should say he or she has no sin.

———  This denotes a new thought is forthcoming.


2:3 – 6.                  We know Jesus if we obey His commands.  We walk as He walks.


2:7- 11.                 Love your brother.  You are in the light.

 ———                 Why he wrote.

 2:12 -14.               John’s happy psalm.   “I write to you … .”


 2:15-17                 The world is passing away.  Don’t love its culture.

 B.  Part II.  I John 2:18 – 27.  Exegesis:  What occasioned John’s letter.

2:18, 19.               The antichrist went out.  They never belonged.


2:20-23.                The anointing from the Holy One is truth.


2:24 – 27.             Truth is in you:  One truth is fellowship with God through His Son on the eternal life level.                               

C.  Part III.  I John 2:28 – 5:21.  Who is born of God? 

2:28 – 3:10.         The church:  Those who were practicing righteousness.


 ———–             And now!  John turned his attention to helping the church recover their confidence. 

Sons of God

3:1-3.                     We know Jesus Christ, but we don’t know the nature of His present spiritual body.  “When He appears, we shall be like Him.”


3:4-6.                     He who sins breaks the law of life.  Sinners are not in fellowship with God.

God’s seed

3:7-10.                  Children of God practice righteousness.

                                  Children of the devil do not.

What is love?                                   

3:11 – 24.             Love (Gr. agape).  Jesus defined agape on the cross.  It is not just about self.  Christians become love by loving other members with material goods and exhortations.               

Holy Spirit fellowship

4:1 – 6.                  Test the spirits.  If the spirit in a prophet does not recognize that Jesus Christ came in the flesh they lie.  The Spirit of truth is in you and He is stronger than the antichrist’s spirit.  They have the spirit of falsehood.

Love made complete

4:7 – 5:5.              God is love.  Whoever loves God’s children, knows God.  God’s love for us should stimulate love in us.  The presence of His Spirit is the evidence Christians have been born again and are spiritually alive.

Our Faith.

5:6 – 12.                God’s testimony is that Jesus is the Christ and He came in the flesh.    God’s three witnesses are the water and blood that flowed from Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ.  The Holy Spirit’s witness is His written word by the inspired writers about what happened.  God’s testimony is the faith of Christians who are in “eternal life fellowship” with God. 


5:13-17.                Confident faith about our own eternal life will get God’s attention for Christians’ prayers.  We need to be careful to give consideration to God’s will about that which we ask.

The purpose of John’s first letter:

5:18-20.                At the time, the antichrist group “went out,” John’s “dear friends,” the members of the church, appeared to become unsure of their relationship with God.  John wrote so they, and we, might know we can know where we stand with our Creator and the Father of our spirits.  Please note the “we know” imperatives in this last block of scripture.

Idols                      Since this is the first time John referred to idols, we might wonder if he

5:21                        was thinking about the idols so many people cherish in I John 2:15-17.

However, idol worship was a foundational factor in the culture of the Roman Empire.

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