The first letter of John is to a young church and the simplest and best way to describe its message is that it is a call to get back to basics. The letter is written to young Christians who are the following generation of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus. This is witnessed in the “we” “you” use of language and means of referencing. The letter also serves as a strong defence against those who seek to lead these young believers astray, John is aware of those who are denying that Jesus is the messiah and by denying that Jesus is the messiah they are claiming to speak on behalf of God.
1 John has a simple structure, the letter has two main parts, the first is to explain that God is light and what that means for Christians. The second half is to explain that God is love and what that means for Christians. However, we must go further as the letter deserves a fuller explanation and John seeks to make clear the meaning within his statements.
Back to basics
True believers walk in the light if indeed they have fellowship with God since God is light. In other words, John is able to give clear implications and imperatives because of how God has revealed Himself and if we have fellowship with God then we have fellowship with God in the light, in righteousness and holiness. To confess your sins is, to tell the truth, asking for forgiveness might be considered as acknowledging sin, but confession is how we spell it our before God in the assurance that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. These same believers will also demonstrate their fellowship with God (walking in the light) by keeping the commandments of God (1:5-2:11).
There are many clear imperatives (commands) in this letter and therefore we are not surprised to find the command to grow in Christ and the command to not love the world. The world contains many things which in time will cease to exist and therefore we should not be the type of people who invest in those things, rather we are to invest ourselves in the will of God which will remain forever. True believers will abide in Christ whereas false believers with depart from the faith and young believers must be aware of this lest they believe that the Christian life can be lived in ways contrary to what the word of God teaches (2:12-27)
Jesus was revealed to destroy sin and therefore those who belong to Him should not persist in a sinful lifestyle. John is clear that Christians still sin, the difference, however, will be seen in who has the control. The true believer is able to say no to sin and yes to God, and though many battles with sin will be lost, the fight continues. whereas those who belong to the devil and controlled by their sinful nature (3:8). Keeping God’s commandments is John’s way of positively stating what we must do, compared to the negative of not practicing sin. Stating it this way also encourages the mind and heart on what the believer should be doing rather than focusing on what they should not be doing. In other words, we can avoid the negative (sinful practices) by focusing on and practicing the positive (keeping the commandments of God) (3:11-24).
Growing in our knowledge of Christ is how (John explains) we will be able to discern what is true from what is false. John cautioned his readers to be discerning as there were many false prophets (4:1-6). This is John’s way of describing those who claim to speak for God, as the role of a prophet was to speak God’s word to God’s people on God’s behalf. The main issue that John addresses are those who deny the full humanity of Christ and therefore, in turn, they are denying the incarnation. Those who receive the apostolic teaching and discern the difference between this and the false teaching will be victorious in not succumbing to every spirit (4:1).
This ability to be discerning is also how they will be able to tell the difference between a worldly version of love and the real meaning as defined by God. in other words God’s people are able to love properly only because God who is love dwells in them and this is how love will be perfected in us (4:12). When a person is filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore a Christian there is an assurance which comes directly from God. Confidence in the Christian life comes with knowing and living by faith in the word of God. Therefore, keeping the commandments of God is not an impossible task. John concludes with the reason for why he has written these things, that they who believe in the name of the Son of God may know that they have eternal life. They are able to be confident in prayer when their prayers are consistent with the will of God but the reminder is given so as to clearly define true Christianity, by addressing the fact that those who belong to God do not practice sin (5:18).
Keeping the compass
The reason why John addresses the false teachers and their teaching is because the same name can be used for different realities, therefore, definitions matter. An example of this would be titles which don’t need direct objects like “Christianity”. This title now covers a wide range of people all of whom claim that they have the right to use it to define what they believe and practice. However, when you investigate what they believe and practice it doesn’t in all cases look like the Christianity we find in the scriptures. Therefore, when a person says that they are a follower of Christ, that they walk in the light, as John teaches hear, then we should see the correlation between their walk and the life of Christ. This is the point which John is making and why he spends so must time defining what he means by what he says. John isn’t seeking to cause trouble but to address the trouble makers by addressing their redefinitions of Christianity amongst other things.
Christianity like a child writing lines at school needs often to return to how it was written down in the first instance because every other imitation of the previous one is not as clear as the original. This is what happened at the reformation and what must continue to happen if we are to reflect a biblical Christianity to the world.