Thursday, January 15, 2015

1 John: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  For my report on the first letter of John, I will also include artwork of the famous biblical figure known as "Anti-Christ" who is only mentioned in the letters of John, which is kind of ironic because 1 John is mostly about love.  However, Anti-Christ looms in the shadows.

The first letter of John is traditionally ascribed to the author of the gospel of John, though nowhere does the letter name John.  This connection has to more to do with a shared theme and outlook than with actual authorship.  Scholars today speak of a “Johannine Community” that may have produced this body of literature.  

"Anti-Christ and the Devil" by Luca Signorelli (1501)

The first letter of John is mainly about love.  In just five chapters, the author uses the word “love” 44 times.  The sort of love he is talking about is not necessarily romantic love, but rather the love that binds together a community.  It is a Christ-like, self-sacrificing love that is deeply concerned with the welfare of one’s fellow human beings.  Here are some verses from 1 John about love:

“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning: that we should love one another.” (3:11)

“Little children, let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (3:18)

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (4:7)

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (4:16)

“Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters.” (4:21)

This love that is supposed to characterize the Christian community has its origins in God.  Jesus, the son of God, is the agent of God’s love, who sacrificed himself for the world: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  This self-sacrificing love of Christ is a model for Christians: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” and elsewhere; “whoever says ‘I abide in him’ ought to walk just as he walked.”

Fresco in the Osogovo Monastery in Macedonia.  The inscription reads "All kings and nations bow before the Anti-Christ."

Although the first letter of John is mostly about love, it is also (like many of the New Testament letters) about harshly criticizing those who do not share the author’s beliefs.  The letters of John are the only books in the Bible to use the word “antichrist.”  When using this term, the author is not speaking of some future enemy, but of current ideological opponents, specifically those who don’t believe Jesus is the messiah: “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.”  

The author sees the world in terms of a strict dualism of good and evil, light and darkness, God and the devil.  Those who disagree with the author are on the side of darkness, evil, and the devil.  Those who agree with the author are on the side of light, goodness, and God.  The author writes, “We are from God.  Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us,” and elsewhere “Everyone who does what is right is righteous…everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”  The author sees humanity as divided between the “children of God” and the “children of the devil.”

1 John is a complicated book.  On the one hand, it is about love for people within the Christian community.  On the other hand, it sees those outside this community as evil, dark, children of the devil.  This dualistic view of the world seems overly simplistic, and even potentially dangerous in a modern, diverse, pluralistic, secular, democratic society like ours.  Religious folks who see the world in this dualistic way tend to be insular, judgmental, and closed-minded about different faith traditions.

Acclaimed Scandinavian director Lars Von Trier recently made a film called Anti-Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Grandma has family lessons based on 1 John. You’ll find them at: