- To whom are the words spoken or directed?
- Which Covenant is represented in the teaching?
- What is the overall point being made?
- Context, including surrounding sentences, the entire book, etc.
It's also important to note that the various books of the Bible, not the least of which include the New Testament epistles, were not written in a void. That is, when a writer wrote an epistle, he didn't simply sit down and say to himself, "hmm, which topics and doctrines of the Christian life should I write about today?" Most often the epistles were, in fact, responses to questions from the church, and to events that were happening within the church. John's first epistle was no exception. The first part of this epistle was directed toward a certain group of people within the church he was writing to. Gnostics had come into the church with some erroneous beliefs and false teachings about Jesus, and John addressed these head-on.
Unfortunately, a "face value" reading of this epistle, without a knowledge of this first century Gnostic infiltration of the church, has (not surprisingly) led to a misunderstanding of the first ten verses that make up Chapter One. Study aids are very helpful in understanding these things. In the introduction to 1 John, the Nelson's Study Bible says:
"Gnosticism was a teaching that blended Eastern mysticism with Greek dualism (which claimed that the spirit is completely good, but matter is completely evil)... Based on the concept that matter is evil and spirit is good, some Gnostics concluded that if God was truly good He could not have created the material universe. Therefore, some lesser god had to have created it... The dualistic views of Gnosticism were also reflected in the prevalent belief that Jesus did not have a physical body."In addition, since the Gnostics believed all matter to be evil, then "sin" wasn't an issue, as it didn't matter what a person did with their body. To address all of this heresy, John writes:
"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." (1 John 1:1-3)He is telling the Gnostics that indeed they had seen and touched Jesus - He had truly come in the flesh - and then he said he was declaring this to them so that "you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ." He then went on in the last few verses to tell the unbelievers/Gnostics how it is that they could come into the light and be forgiven and cleansed of all unrighteousness.
It's not until the second chapter that John redirects his thoughts and begins talking to the believers. "My little children..." And he even tells them quite directly, "I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake." (1 John 2:12). How does he know whether or not they've individually done their continued confessions? :) He doesn't, nor does it matter in the least. The point is moot. What he does know is that those who believe (those who he is now speaking to) have already been forgiven once and for all, and he assures them of that.
Then later, in chapter 4, he reminds them to beware of the false prophets/Antichrist spirit, and it seems he's speaking in large part about the Gnostics:
"Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world." (1 John 4:1-3)Regarding all this, Paul Anderson-Walsh, in his book Safe and Sound, writes:
"It is clear to me, at least, that the Apostle John's concern was not to instruct the church in the way of asking God for daily forgiveness but rather, to bring the Gnostic anti-Christs to heel and to salvation and the reception of their forgiveness.Regarding the "new and living way" by which we have "boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus," the writer of Hebrews writes, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering..." He doesn't say "Let us hold fast the confession of our sins." He has spent several chapters talking about the finished work of Jesus and how we have been perfected and made eternally clean by the blood of Jesus. More about that in Part Three.
The Apostle John's purpose here in the fourth chapter was not to show the naïve young saints how to get forgiven but how to protect themselves from interlopers."
Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4