Since there is no name given, the authorship of next three letters is somewhat debated. However, they are traditionally attributed to the apostle John for good reason. First, the language of the letters and the gospel is overwhelmingly similar, in some ways more so than even between Paul’s. Second, the issues addressed reflect a period late enough in the Church’s life that some doctrines were already considered “old,” yet early enough that the attacks on doctrine were relatively new. Third, some of the Early Fathers close to John connect these letters to him.
Again, with no greeting comes no recipients mentioned in 1 John. Second John is addressed to “an elect lady and her children,” while 3 John was clearly written to Gaius, a dear friend. Technically, then, at least two of these are not “general” epistles.
First John is notoriously difficult to outline, because, rather than flowing from one thought into the next, John carried multiple themes throughout, blending them together. However, that does not mean there is no structure at all; there are, in fact, three keys to understanding this letter. First, four times John declared, “I [or, we] am writing these things to you” for a stated purpose, primarily that we can know that we know God (1 John 1:4; 2:1, 12; 5:13). Second, based on the theme that we can truly know God, John gave a series of “tests” to determine how well we know God. Each of these is set as a contrast between knowing God and not knowing him (1 John 1:6-7, 8-9; 1:10–2:2; 1 John 2:3-6, 9-11, 15-17, 24-27; 3:4-10, 15-17; 4:7-10, 15-16; 4:20–5:4). Third, based on these “tests” of how well we know God, it is important to understand that 1 John presents the Christian ideal in a series of black and white statements. Many people have been tripped up by this short letter because of its harsh terms, leaving no gray areas. These will be explored further in each chapter. Suffice it to say that the one who would truly know God completely would also truly live in complete perfection. However, even John acknowledged early on that this was impossible, though something to strive for (1 John 2:1-2).
Chapter one, with no introduction, jumps directly into arguing two primary points. First, it seems that John intended to debunk the fledgling Gnostic ideas regarding the spirit and the flesh. Based in Platonic dualism, Gnostics taught that the spirit/immaterial was good but the flesh/material was bad. Some had even started teaching that Jesus did not and could not have come in the flesh and died (see 1 John 4:1-6). John opened with a series of phrases arguing that, not only had Jesus come in the flesh, John was one of those who “heard…[saw] with our eyes…looked at…hands touched” the genuinely physical Jesus (1 John 1:1; John 1:14). Jesus became everything we are in order to reveal God to us (1 John 1:2; John 1:18).
Second, John presented the gospel message: who Jesus is and what he did/does. He is the eternal light of the world that expels darkness (1 John 1:5-7; John 1:4-10; 8:12). Those who believe in him are to walk in his light in order to remain in fellowship with God and other believers. The first few tests of knowing him have to do with the recognition of our own sinfulness. When we walk in his light, he will continue to cleanse us, as we confess our sin. Not confessing, on the other hand, is the same as claiming perfection, which is essentially the same as calling God a liar.
It is best to include 1 John 2:1-2 with chapter one. As much as John would like his readers to not sin, he knows that is an impossibility. Most translations have “if anyone does sin” in 2:1, but this is a third class conditional sentence, which assumes that the hypothetical “if” could possibly come true at some point in the future. Jesus’ never-ending advocacy before the Father on our behalf when we confess our sin is meant to be an encouragement, so “when anyone does sin” seems to more appropriately convey John’s point than simply “if.”