A whiteboard summary of the book of 1 John
Have you ever read a good book and wondered to yourself, “What makes this book so good?” There are so many reasons we could talk about as to why, but two of the most fundamental characteristics that must be present in almost every good book is structure and argument. Structure denotes how the book is organized. If it is thrown together haphazardly, it will be difficult to follow and likely unenjoyable. But it must also have a clear argument. This indicates the flow of the author’s thoughts or ideas. A dictionary may be well organized, but it is not designed to flow. There is both a science to writing (structure) and an art (argument). Both are necessary.
Over the years as I have put my WordBoard projects together, it has always been my intent to capture both the structure and the argument of a book. The structure of a book of the Bible would be equivalent to the outline. How has the author arranged his thoughts and how do we know it is organized that way? The argument of the book, on the other hand, represents the flow of his thoughts. What is the author’s logic and how does the outline or structure dictate this to us? Good Bible study attempts to answer both of these questions. You cannot understand the author’s intent without the flow and only an outline. But you will also have a difficult time determining the flow without an outline. Both are necessary.
It is my hope that each book summary conveys both the structure and the argument well. And if I did a good enough job, my goal is that the structure and argument are presented to you seamlessly.
With this in mind I want to begin something new with WordBoard. I want to start what I am calling a WordBlog. From now on I plan to accompany each video with a blog post. Each post will follow up the video a few days later and explain the evidence behind it. For Boardies, that will mean explaining in greater detail the evidence I have given in the video or offering more evidence, since Boardies are dealing with verses and not books. But book summaries will address the structure and argument of the book as I have presented them in the video. And I honestly cannot think of a better book to begin discussing structure and argument than 1 John.
The Structure of 1 John
In the video, I stated that the overarching purpose of the letter is to persuade Christians that Jesus is the very definition of truth. You should know, that purpose statement is not the general consensus. First John is usually described as a letter written to offer ways you can gain assurance of your salvation. The reason why scholars and pastors say this is because John gives a very clear purpose statement at the end of the letter, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). In addition, John has already shown a tendency to put his purpose statements at the end of his books (see the Gospel of John 20:31). So, it would make sense to find such a purpose statement at the end of 1 John.
I do not want to minimize the significance of the assurance theme in 1 John. It is a very important piece to the puzzle. But the reason I do not accept this verse as the main purpose statement is because John provides three other statements just like it in the letter:
- “And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4).
- “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1).
- “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you” (1 John 2:26).
- “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
There are actually four purpose statements in the book. Most commentaries ignore this, but I believe it is a very important feature to the letter of 1 John, because instead of giving us the purpose of the letter, it tells us its structure. One part is written so that their joy may be made full. Another, so that they may not sin. A third, so that they may become aware of false teachers among them. And the last, so that they may know they have eternal life. Four purpose statements. And those four make up the outline.
But in typical Johannine fashion, each purpose statement comes at the end of the section rather than the beginning, helping you seal off each part before a new one begins. So the outline for the book would be as follows:
- The truth of Christ leads to joy (1 John 1:1–4, purpose: 1:4)
- The joy of fellowship leads to sinlessness (1:5–2:2, purpose: 2:1)
- The sinfulness of others leads to awareness of false teachers (2:3–2:27, purpose: 2:26)
- The awareness of false teachers leads to a personal assurance of salvation (2:28–5:17, purpose: 5:13)
- Summary and Conclusion (5:18–21)
The Argument of 1 John
But there is not only structure to this book; there is also argument. The book moves almost indistinctly from subject to subject, not only in its macrostructure (from purpose statement to purpose statement: 1:4; 2:1; 2:26; 5:13), but also in its microstructure (from paragraph to paragraph). Let me show you what I mean.
There is a logical progression at a macro level. Truth embodied by Jesus Himself gets the ball rolling from the beginning. If you believe in Christ and all the important components He brings to the table, it unlocks a series of fundamental qualities that lead you to a firm conviction about Christ and what your life needs to look like relative to Him. The authenticity of Christ and all He is leads to immeasurable joy based on the fellowship it creates for us with God (1:1–4). Thatcommunity of joy with the Lord then becomes the basis for standing firm against sin (1:5–2:2). Sin then turns into an important gauge for how to recognize the false teachers and antichrists within our midst (2:3–27). And a clear awareness of those who are false sets up for a concrete conviction in our own souls that our salvation is in fact true.
There is also a logical progression at the micro level. For example, 1 John 2:28–3:6 sounds very similar to 1 John 3:7–12. Both address practicing righteousness (2:29; 3:7, 10), practicing sin (3:6, 8–9), and being born of God (2:29; 3:9). It might be tempting to lump these passages together, but I want to submit three reasons why I believe this is ill-advised. First, like I already said, John moves from subject to subject seamlessly all throughout the letter, not just here. Just because it sounds the same, does not mean it is. Second, John gives cues in the last half of the letter to signal to us when he is beginning a new subsection. Every time he addresses his audience with a title, such as “little children,” “beloved,” or “brothers,” and combines that with a subtle shift in emphasis, he is moving on to a different topic. In this case, John clues us in that the subject is changing in 3:7 when he says, “Little children, let no one deceive you.” The direct address is a strong indicator John is about to move on to something slightly different, and our suspicions are confirmed when we begin to see the topic change ever so slightly.
In 2:28–3:6, John talked about practicing righteousness, practicing sin, and being born of God, in order to help his audience know how they can abide in Christ (2:28). The emphasis of the first section then is about abiding in Christ.But in 3:7, John shifts the subject to something new. He still uses many of the same talking points—practicing righteousness, practicing, sin, being born of God—but he uses them this time to help his audience see a clear difference between those who abide in Christ and those who abide in Satan.
One has to do with staying in Christ (2:28–3:6). The other has to do with staying away from Satan (3:6–12). And I would be remiss if I did not reiterate that each of these two passages at the micro level merely serve to establish the final purpose statement, that awareness of those who are false lays the groundwork for assurance that we are in fact true.
That is how the book operates from front to back. It is engineered with an intricate strategy that presses together layer after layer of truth claims to get you to react differently, live differently, observe differently, and believe differently, until you are left with nothing but an ironclad conviction about the center of all truth, Christ Jesus our Lord.