1 John has proven itself unique in a number of ways, not the least of which in its structure. That is to say, scholars are pretty sure there is a structure to the letter, they just do not agree on what it is.
I turned to a lesser-known academic for some help in figuring it all out—Simon Patterson and his paper, Does 1 John Have a Structure? He first noted the various ways previous researchers have attempted to organize 1 John.
Possible Methods for Organizing 1 John
This view sees John’s first letter in three strophes: A prologue, 1:1-4; a first cycle, 1:5-2:28; a second cycle 2:29-4:6; and a third cycle 4:7-5:21. The idea is of an eagle wheeling on an updraft, cycling through the same ideas but at a new, higher level. Within these spiraling cycles are tests for discovering if one is really a Christian.
“Binary” just means “two,” in this case. There’s still the prologue, 1:1-4, but now there are only two main ideas: walking in the light, 1:5-3:10, and walking in love, 3:11-5:12. There’s also a conclusion in this version, 5:13-21.
Maybe, though, it really is just a letter that goes, kind of stream-of-consciousness style, from one idea to the next. The prologue (1:1-4) and conclusion (5:13-21) stay intact, but now there are twelve distinct thought-bytes. (They are all clearly laid out in the link above).
But what if this letter was written as a chiasm? That would make sense, right? I mean, chiasms and rhetoric were de rigueur for the day. Here is the suggested chiasm Patterson critiques:
It does look really good, and I am actually partial to chiastic structures. However, under closer scrutiny, it just does not hold up well.
Sooooooo . . .
Is there a structure?
This is Patterson’s term, and I think he does a sturdy job of supporting his theory. His basic premise is that the text itself—and not outside understanding of how texts are supposed to be formulated—guides how to organize the material within it.
He found seven identifiable sections that were further broken down into eighteen units within the letter.
1:1-4, There is consensus across the board this acts as an introduction.
1:5-2:11, Darkness versus light motif. (four units)
2:12-3:24, Introduces the Spirit, speaks of antiChrists, and what it means to remain. (eight units)
4:1-6, Speaks of the Spirit.
4:7-5:4a, Speaks of agape love. (three units)
5:13-21, Also seems to consistently rise up as the closing.
Themes in 1 John
Who is the real Jesus?
Every so often, someone writes a book Big Reveal style, that claims to expose the real, you betcha, genuine, authentic, all-disguises-stripped-away Jesus.
I remember, years ago, one famous author appearing on a well-known talk show to talk up his new book about who the real Jesus is. Except his Jesus did not look anything like the Jesus the apostles wrote about—certainly nothing like the Jesus who walked through the pages of John’s gospel. The famous author’s version of Jesus had no miracles, no divinity, and did not even say all the things attributed to him as quotes in the scriptures.
Believe it or not, though, this is nothing new.
No Big Reveal, here.
The Apostle John was dealing with the same kind of thing in his day, too. Persuasive teachers were claiming all kinds of things about Jesus, about people, about creation and God that were patently untrue, but couched as though they were mystical secrets long hidden and only now revealed.
- They taught that spirit was all good and matter was all bad. That meant a person’s body was evil, contrasted to God Who was all Spirit, therefore good. You and I hear something of this in some of today’s spirituality where people try to transcend the physical to be just in the spiritual plane. That is wrong teaching. God created all the physical world and said it is good—very good.
- They taught that salvation was escape from the body. You and I hear that today, too, in ideas about becoming one with the cosmos.
- This kind of ultimate experience was achieved by having special knowledge beyond faith in Jesus, beyond what the Bible taught. It was a special knowledge—the Greek word gnosis—that came through ecstatic transport of the soul into the heavenlies, where angelic beings would pull back the veil to uncover the hidden truths.
- You maybe can see where this is going. Jesus’s true humanity was denied in two ways: some said Jesus only seemed to have a body, but he did not really have one. Others said the Spirit of Christ entered the man Jesus when he was baptized, but left before he died on the cross. It is this second view that John taught against in his letter, starting right away in the preamble, exclaiming,
The One Who was from the beginning, Whom we have heard, Whom we have seen, our eyes beheld Him, our hands touched him, concerning the word of life—and the life was made visible, and we have seen and bear witness.1 John 1:1-2
That was not enough for John, though. He exclaimed two more times,
Who is the liar if not the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son . . .
In this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that acknowledges Jesus Christ in flesh is from the God, and every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God—and this is the antichrist’s one, for you have heard that one comes, and is now already in the world.John 2:22 and 4:2-3
- Since Gnostics considered the material, fleshly body to be evil, some Gnostic sects insisted the body was to be treated harshly. These placed on adherents the onerous burden of severe regulations and decrees in how to behave, and how to punish and subdue the body. Sadly, this thinking has crept into expressions of Christianity again and again.
- But the pendulum swung the other way, too. Others taught that since all physical matter was evil, if one’s body broke God’s law, that did not matter in the spiritual realm so long as one’s spirit remained pure. I am not sure exactly how that could have been practiced in reality, but ultimately this teaching translated into a remarkably sensuous lifestyle in which all the pleasures of the body were indulged to the limits (and beyond). All that really mattered, according to this teaching, was to keep one’s motives pure.
One of the more damning teachings of the Gnostic sects was the view that the true supreme God was hidden, and the God presented in the Hebrew scriptures as Yahweh was a malevolent lesser being, called a demiurge, who had created the material, three-dimensional universe and subjected noble spirits to live in it, trapped in physical bodies.
Salvation, then, was to become known to the supreme, hidden God and to be released from the cesspool of earth. Illusion replaced sin in this scheme, and enlightenment replaced redemption.
The seductive charm of this faulty thinking has wormed its way into Christianity at regular intervals, and today is no exception. That is why John’s letters are as relevant now, and vital to the life of faith, as they have ever, ever been.
[Das Ophitendiagramm, Gesamtansicht | By B. Witte – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3542135%5D