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Bible Commentaries

Peake's Commentary on the Bible

1 John

- 1 John

by Arthur Peake



THIS epistle contains no intimation as to either its author or its readers. It has been regarded by some as addressed to Christians in general, for which reason the epithet “ Catholic” has been applied to it. That it is a real letter, and not, as some have thought, merely a doctrinal treatise or homily, is suggested by the recurring phrases, “ I write unto you,” “ I have written unto you.” Moreover, its tone and contents afford evidence that the author had some acquaintance with those to whom he writes, and held in relation to them a position of authority and responsibility. There is no hint that the letter was a response to some appeal for guidance. The author seems to have written of his own accord, and as one who felt that his position gave him the right to do so. Such an attitude would agree with all that tradition reports concerning the Apostle John during his alleged residence at Ephesus. After the fall of Jerusalem John is said to have left Palestine, and to have made his home henceforth at Ephesus, the chief city of the Roman province of Asia. There, in virtue of his saintly character not less than of his apostolic office, he obtained a commanding influence not only in Ephesus itself, but over all the churches of proconsular Asia. This fact is reflected in the Book of the Revelation being sent in John’ s name to “ the seven churches which are in Asia.” It seems likely that this epistle also was intended for more than one church. It was probably designed for all the churches which came within John’ s sphere of influence, and this may explain why, though no church in particular seems to be addressed, the writer is so well acquainted with his readers, and can write to them in terms of both affection and authority.

Early Christian writers, e.g. Irenæ us, Tertullian, Origen, mention John as the author, and it is only in modern times that this view has been challenged, the grounds of scepticism being in the main those which have been urged against the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel. For it is generally conceded that this epistle and that gospel are so akin that they must have come from the same Christian circle and, most credibly, from the same writer. Their resemblances to each other in vocabulary and style (p. 592 ); in resort to antithesis, e.g. light and darkness, life and death; in mode of argumentation, the author being fond of repeating in parallel expressions his point of view, sustain the theory of a common authorship. Differences there are, but only such as are easily accounted for by some interval of time between the two writings and by a difference in their theme and aim: they are insufficient to demand a difference of author. Hence we may regard this epistle as identical in its authorship with the Fourth Gospel. Any considerations which permit the view that the apostle John was the author of the gospel, justify us in assigning this epistle also to him.

The main object of 1 Jn. was to safeguard its readers against the insidious influence of certain false teachers. The heresy they taught has been generally regarded as some form of Gnosticism, so called because its adherents set great store by gnosis or knowledge. In the decay of belief, characteristic of the time, Gnosticism was an attempt to blend Eastern mysticism with Græ co-Roman culture. The main stream of the movement, in addition to the exaggerated value it attached to intellectualism, regarded spirit and matter as hostile to each other, sin being declared to reside solely in the flesh. It was not until the second century that Christianity encountered the full force of this dangerous amalgam of ideas, but even in the first century, as we may learn from Jude and from what is told us concerning the churches of Asia in Revelation 2 f., movements which drew their characteristics from Gnosticism were affecting the Christian Church. One type of false Christology, known as Docetism, reduced the Incarnation to the mere appearance of a union of God with man. Another type taught that the Divine Christ united Himself with the human Jesus at the Baptism and departed from Him prior to His Crucifixion. This Christological heresy in both its forms appears to be assailed in 1 Jn. The words “ I know him” ( 1 John 2:4) seem a quotation of one of its watchwords. Doctrinally it annulled the unity of Christ’ s person. In practical matters its belief that salvation was constituted solely by the knowledge of Divine mysteries led to an estimate of right conduct as unimportant. The same antinomian conclusion was reached by way of its doctrine of the flesh, for whilst the hostility assumed to exist between it and the spirit drove some of the worthier adherents of this heresy to asceticism, it led others to regard the flesh as so remote from the spirit that its passions could be freely gratified without sin. Clearly with such a heresy the Christian faith could hold no truce, and it is not surprising that John, having this seductive peril in view, attacks it without quarter. Cerinthus, a Gnostic with whom, according to tradition, John held a controversy, is reported by Irenæ us to have held that the æ on Christ descended on Jesus at the Baptism, deserting Him before the Crucifixion to fly back to His Pleroma. 1 Jn. is difficult of analysis, but broadly its argument is an appeal to the perfection and finality of that revelation of God which came by way of the historical Jesus, and an assertion of the worth and finality of the Christian experience which that historical revelation had demanded and created. In other words, Christianity is the true gnosis rooted in history and, by its ethical fruits, verifying itself in human experience. If the foregoing view be correct, we may regard 1 Jn. as written by the apostle John about A.D. 90 .

Literature. Commentaries: ( a) Bennett (Cent.B), Plummer (CB), Ramsay (WNT), Forbes (IH); ( b) Westcott, Plummer (CGT), D. Smith (EGT), Brooke (ICC); ( c)* Haupt, Rothe (these on 1 Jn. only),* Huther (Mey.), B. Weiss (Mey.), Luthardt, Holtzmann-Bauer (HC), Baumgarten (SNT), Windisch (HNT); ( d) Alexander (Ex.B), Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal; Law, The Tests of Life ( 1 Jn. only). Other Literature: Stevens, Johannine Theology; Pfleiderer, Primitive Christianity; Cone, The Gospel and its Earliest Interpretation; Gilbert, The First Interpreters of Jesus; Schmiedel, The Johannine Writings; Articles in Dictionaries and books on NTT and INT.



THE exact significance of the epithet “ catholic” or “ general,” as applied to the seven writings which bear the names of James , 1 and 2 Peter , 1, 2 , and 3 Jn., and Jude, has been a matter of considerable debate. It has been surmised that they are so entitled because they are the work of the apostles generally as distinguished from the compact body of Pauline letters; or because they contain catholic in the sense of orthodox teaching, or general rather than particular instruction; or again because they were generally accepted in contrast to other writings which bore apostolic names but failed to make good their claim. A more likely reason than any of these is that they were addressed to Christians in general or to groups of churches instead of to individual communities like Corinth and Rome, to which Paul usually wrote. We say “ usually,” because Galatians was written to a group of churches, and there is reason to think that Ephesians was meant as a circular letter. Cf. also Colossians 4:16. Of the seven “ catholic” epistles, two ( 2 and 3 Jn.) hardly satisfy our test, for they were written to a particular, though unnamed, church and to an individual respectively. Their inclusion in the group is thus a mere matter of convenience; they would naturally come to be associated with 1 Jn. Jas. is addressed to “ the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” 1 P. to Christians in Asia Minor, 2 P. and Jude broadly to the writer’ s fellow-believers; 1 Jn. has no address, and is more like a homily than a letter.

The earliest record of the name appears to be about A.D). 197 , in the anti-Montanist writer Apollonius (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 2 Peter 3:18), who declares that the heretic Themiso wrote a “ catholic” epistle in imitation of that of the apostle (? John). Clement of Alexandria ( c. 200 ) refers to the letter of Acts 15:23-29 and to Jude as “ catholic.” Origen ( c. 230 ) applies the epithet to the epistle of Barnabas, as to 1 Jn., 1 P., and Jude. Dionysius of Alexandria ( c. 260 ) uses it of 1 Jn. in opposition to 2 and 3 Jn. Such usage, and that of Eusebius of Cæ sarea ( c. 310 ), who uses the adjective of the whole seven ( Hist. Eccl., ii. 23 ), is sufficient to disprove the opinion that “ catholic” means “ recognised by the whole church.” As a matter of fact, most of the seven were hotly contested, and only gradually secured their place in the NT canon. 1 Jn., which was the first to be so styled, evidently won the epithet because of the encyclical nature of its appeal— it was an exhortation to the church at large rather than to a narrow circle, a single church, or even a group of churches, like the Pauline letters and 1 P., to say nothing of individual persons— and because its contents were official in a sense in which even Paul’ s epistles were not. Most akin in this respect were Jude and 2 P., and perhaps Jas., if the twelve tribes can be taken as representing the new Israel of Christendom. The recipients of 1 P., too, included well-nigh half the Christian world. 2 and 3 Jn. secured their footing because of their name. The little canon of Pauline letters was usually designated “ the Apostle,” and it would only be a question of time for the group of non-Pauline epistles to be entitled “ catholic.” When the name of the group became known in the Western Church, it was misinterpreted and taken in a dogmatic sense as equivalent to “ canonic,” i.e. apostolic or genuine. As “ the canonic epistles” they became known in the West, and the original idea of contrast with the Pauline letters disappeared. Junilius Africanus ( c. 550 ) understands “ canonic” as “ containing the rule of faith.”

So late as Junilius’ day, 1 Jn. and 1 P. stood apart for him, though he says that very many add the other five. This majority opinion was due to Jerome and Augustine. Chrysostom’ s Synopsis names only three ( 1 Jn., 1 P., Jas.), thus following Lucian and the school of Antioch, which also influenced the Peshitta or “ Vulgate.” Syriac. Eusebius puts 1 Jn. and 1 P. in the class of universally accepted books, while Jas., Jude, 2 Peter , 2 and 3 Jn., are a second class, “ disputed,” but making their way towards the first class ( Hist. Eccl., iii. 25 ). Cyprian of Carthage ( d. 259 ) received only 1 Jn. and 1 P. The Muratorian Fragment (if we admit Zahn’ s very tempting emendation [108] ) shows that at Rome, c. 180 , these two books were received. 2 P. was not generally accepted for reading in church, while Jude 1:2 and 3 Jn. formed a little group scarcely regarded as apostolic (for they are linked with the Wisdom of Solomon), yet “ accepted in the Catholic Church.” Jas. is not mentioned.

[108] Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers, p. 87.

The influence of Augustine has been mentioned. In De Fide et Operibus (xiv. 21 ) he points out that Paul pressed his doctrine of justification by faith so far as to be in peril of being misunderstood. Paul lays the foundations, the Catholic Epistles raise the superstructure; he is careful for the genuineness of the root, they for the good fruit; he feels himself a minister of the Gospel, they speak in the name of the (nascent Catholic) Church.

It may be granted that there are certain points of relationship between the seven epistles, despite their varied authorship. They lack in general the personal note, and seek to meet more widespread need by general counsel. Jü licher ranks them as a class in which the epistle is merely a literary form whereby the unknown writer holds intercourse with an unknown public. The transition from the Pauline letters to the Catholic Epistles is by way of Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Pastorals ( cf. p. 603 ). None of them is lengthy, none starts a far-reaching train of thought, or contributes much to pure theology. They are concerned mainly with practical advice and edifying exhortation. Their modest dimensions gave them an advantage over such longer works as the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. in circulation, and therefore in recognition; apart from the fact that these works, favourites in the Early-Church, bore no apostolic names.

The critical questions, often very perplexing, connected with the separate epistles are discussed in the commentaries that follow. We may note here that, apart from the titles (which are late), 1 Jn. is anonymous, 2 and 3 Jn. simply purport to be from “ the elder,” 1 and 2 P. definitely say they are by Peter the apostle; “ James” and “ Judas, the brother of James” are the slender descriptions given by the authors of the other two epistles. John, James, and Judas (or Jude) were all very common names, and give us no clue to the identity of the authors. As to date, 1 Jn. and 1 P. were in circulation early in the second century, and were attributed to the two apostles before its close. Jude and 2 Jn. were circulated and attributed by about 160 . Jas. was also in circulation then, but no attribution of authorship was made for another half century. Clear traces of 3 Jn. and 2 P. appear a little before 200 . Perhaps the earliest and the least uncertain as to authorship is 1 P., the latest 2 P. The seven epistles cover the sub-apostolic age from, say, A.D. 64 to 150 , and are a valuable reflection of the life and thought of the church during that period. In 1 P. (nearest to Paul in time and in thought, [109] and to many minds one of the choicest books of NT) we see something of the peril that assailed a church from without; in 1 , 2 , and 3 Jn. we are shown the danger from within in matters of doctrine and problems of organisation. Jude is the effort of a teacher who is similarly alarmed by the growth of an antinomian gnosticism and the sins of unbelief, pride, and sensuality. 2 P. is an elaboration of Jude, and also reflects the disappointment felt at the delay of the Second Advent. Jas. is in a class by itself, and resolutely defies any agreed solution of its date and authorship. It sets forth Christianity as the new law.

[109] This commonly received opinion is questioned by H. A. A. Kennedy in ET 27264 (March 1916).

The epistles, though modern scholarship cannot unhesitatingly accept their apostolic authorship, at least represent what the Early Church regarded as apostolic teaching, and subsequent generations have confirmed their practical value. Some may feel that because there is no certainty about their apostolic authorship they should not be included in the KT; but the Early Church was often guided by the intrinsic merits of a book, and accepted it as. apostolic because of its worth. We have to remember, too, that the ancient conception of authorship was widely different from our own— a book would be called John’ s because its teaching agreed with that of John. A writer might go so far as to assume the name of a great teacher in order to gain a reading for his book; and if he succeeded in presenting what might fairly be regarded as the views of the man whose name he assumed, no one felt aggrieved. The practice was especially common in apocalyptic literature. We do not argue in this way now; and similar literary devices when they are practised are tolerated only because we know that they are devices, and generally know also the name of the real author.

The order in which we have the seven epistles has come to us from the fourth century, but there were many earlier variations. The position of the group in early MSS. and versions is also far from fixed. Most Gr. MSS. arrange thus: Gospels, Acts, Cath. Epp., Paul, Rev. The Syrian order is Gospels, Paul, Acts, Cath. Epp., Rev. In Egypt: Gospels, Paul, Cath. Epp., Acts, Rev. In the Muratorian Canon, representing the early West, we have apparently Gospels, Acts, Paul, Cath. Epp., Rev., which is the order followed in the Vulgate and in the English versions.

( See also Supplement)