Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – 1 John

The Centrality of the Incarnation

1 John argues against those who deny “that Jesus is the Christ” (2:22) or that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2-3). From these statements, many interpreters have deduced that the dissidents who have left the Johannine community (2:19) may have subscribed to a belief that came to be known as docetism (from the Greek dokein, “to seem”)– the belief that Jesus only seemed to have a human body, to suffer physically, and to die a physical death. Ignatius of Antioch (in Asia Minor) also wrote against this belief in his letter To the Smyrneans (ca. 110 CE), written not long after 1 John. 

Christological debates over Jesus’ divine and human natures would continue to trouble the church until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, where the view that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human was affirmed as orthodox doctrine and codified in the Definition of Chalcedon. Of course, Chalcedon did not end all Christological debates in the church, but its Definition has remained the doctrine to which the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches adhere.

Love One Another… But What about Others?

1 John sees a direct correlation between right belief (“that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh”) and right practice (“love one another”) (3:23). That Jesus took on our humanity, suffered, and died a human death is central to his saving work in offering himself as the “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (2:2; 4:10). Knowing God’s self-giving love in Christ moves believers to demonstrate self-giving love toward one another, including attention to their physical needs (3:16-17).

1 John consistently emphasizes loving one another – i.e., those who are part of the community addressed. Nothing is said about loving those outside the community, including those who have left and continue to trouble the community. It seems that in the Johannine community, threatened as it is by schism, strengthening internal bonds takes priority over maintaining dialogue with those on the outside. 1 John does affirm that Jesus’ sacrifice is for “the sins of the whole world,” so a door is left open to repentance and salvation for those on the outside. Yet in the moment of writing, the protection of believers and containing the schism are more urgent for the author than the call to love outsiders and enemies.

Understanding the context of 1 John is important to interpreting its relevance for today. Most interpreters would maintain that the letter’s call to love one another within the community of faith needs to be completed by the testimony of other books in the New Testament, particularly by Jesus’ commands to love our neighbor (whoever they may be) and even our enemy.

Conflict and Dualism

Like the Gospel of John, 1 John tends to view the world in terms of polar opposites: light or darkness (1 John 1:5-7; 2:8-9), truth or falsehood (1:6; 2:4, 21, 27; 4:6), life or death (3:14), love or hate (3:14-16; 4:20), and children of God or children of the devil (3:8-10). In 1 John, the dissidents who have left the Johannine community are even called antichrists, i.e., those who put themselves in the place of Christ.t

Dualistic thinking is often found in groups who are oppressed or facing opposition. The Johannine community at the time of the writing of the Gospel was most likely facing expulsion from the synagogue (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). At the time of the writing of 1 John, the community was threatened by schism (1 John 2:18-19). Similar dualistic language (e.g., sons of light vs. sons of darkness) is found in the writings of the Jewish community of Qumran who took refuge in the Judean desert from those in power in Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.

Dualistic language continues to be used in Christian communities today, but is it helpful? Perhaps it is useful as a way of talking about the goodness of God versus the forces of evil. It seems rather arrogant and dangerous, however, to view oneself and one’s in-group as totally good and others as totally evil. (As the author of 1 John acknowledges, to say that we are without sin is to deceive ourselves.) A polarizing view of oneself versus others does not open avenues for dialogue, mutual understanding, or potential reconciliation with those with whom we disagree. 

The language of light and darkness is particularly problematic because its association of light with goodness and darkness with evil or danger has been used in racist ways. Caution is necessary in using this language so as not to perpetuate racist tropes. Reflection on biblical passages which highlight the necessity, beauty, and holiness of darkness and night may be helpful in countering simplistic and potentially harmful use of the language of light and darkness.