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Preaching on 1 John

An overview of the historical background and theology of 1 John to help you develop your sermon series and apply it to your hearers.
Preaching on 1 John
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Historical Background

First John does not follow the standard format for a first century letter. It doesn’t identify the author or the intended audience, although many think it was written by John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and the author of the Gospel of John, to churches in and around Ephesus. The author claims to be an eyewitness of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus (1:1-4).

It’s clearly written to address a threat to the church: false teaching by a group of people who are distorting the gospel and denying key truths about Jesus.

It appears that some false teachers denied that Jesus was Christ, the Son of God, come in the flesh (4:2-3), and that his death was necessary to atone for our sins (5:6-7). This may have caused believers in the church to become confused, not knowing who to believe and questioning their own salvation.

First John is written to help the church respond by helping them to identify false teachers, and to provide reassurance to genuine believers. It calls them back to the basics of the Christian life: right belief, obedience, and love. It also helps believers in the church with assurance. They can know the truth, and they can know that they have eternal life (5:13).

If written to churches in and around Ephesus, then it’s written to a setting similar in many respects to big cities like New York or Los Angeles: cultural centers with significant influence in politics, business, and religion. It was a major port city; many people traveled there. Ephesus was cosmopolitan and many wanted to live there. It was also a place with competing belief systems, a city where the church has thrived, but also faced threats. I pastor a church in downtown Toronto. I don’t pretend that it’s exactly the same, but I certainly recognize the similarities.

First John helps us understand how to maintain our faithfulness to God and the gospel when the gospel is under threat. It also helps us re-center on the basics of the Christian life. The church continually faces the threat of false teachers. The issues may differ, but 1 John helps us know that we can know, and calls us back to orthodoxy that results in transformation in obedience and love.

Sermon Series

Discerning the structure for 1 John is difficult. Commentators differ wildly in their outlines of the book. The author revisits similar themes, returning to them multiple times for emphasis and amplification. It’s more circular than linear, more like a symphony than a logical treatise. Choosing preaching units from this book is no easy task.

It’s probably best to show how John keeps returning to the same themes, and showing how he develops them, even if one does preach sequentially through the book as I suggest below.

Genuine Christianity

Big Idea for the Series: Recognize genuine Christianity and its counterfeits so you can really know!

This eight-part series seems the right length to me. It’s long enough to explain each major section, but not so long that it drags. Because it’s challenging to get a grasp of the overall structure of 1 John, it’s especially helpful to relate each individual message to the overall big idea of the book.

Text: 1 John 1:1-4
  • Title: The Truth About Jesus
  • Exegeticla Idea: The truth about Jesus has been revealed through eyewitnesses to us, and it leads us into fellowship with believers, the Father, and the Son.
  • Big Idea: The truth about Jesus leads to relationship with Jesus and his people.
Text: 1 John 1:5-2:11
  • Title: How to Walk in the Light
  • Exegeticla Idea: Because God is light, we must walk in the light by keeping Jesus’ commands, like loving our brothers and sisters, and by confessing our sins.
  • Big Idea: Walk in the light by keeping Jesus’ commands, and by confessing when you don’t.
Text: 1 John 2:12-17
  • Title: Be Careful What You Love
  • Exegeticla Idea: Every believer has a new status and relationship to the world. So don’t love the world, which is in rebellion to God and is passing away.
  • Big Idea: Because of who you are, be careful what you love.
Text: 1 John 2:18-3:10
  • Title: The Danger of False Teachers
  • Exegeticla Idea: Abide in Jesus by rejecting false teachers who both teach falsehoods and practice disobedience.
  • Big Idea: Abide in Jesus by rejecting false teachers and their sin.
Text: 1 John 3:11-24
  • Title: True Love
  • Exegeticla Idea: Love one another as Christ loved us, with full confidence in God’s grace when you feel like you can’t.
  • Big Idea: Love like Jesus—and when you don’t, run to Jesus.
Text: 1 John 4:1-6
  • Title: Truth Matters
  • Exegeticla Idea: Reject false teachers who deny the truth about Jesus.
  • Big Idea: Recognize truth and reject error.
Text: 1 John 4:7-21
  • Title: God’s Love and Ours
  • Exegeticla Idea: God defines and demonstrates love, which compels us to love in the same way.
  • Big Idea: The Cross shows us God’s love and motivates us to love others.
Text: 1 John 5:1-21
  • Title: The Three Tests
  • Exegeticla Idea: Genuine faith produces love, obedience, and acceptance of the truth.
  • Big Idea: We can know we have eternal life by our love, obedience, and faith.
Getting Christianity Right

Big Idea for the Whole Series: Get Christianity right by rejecting false teaching and focusing on truth, obedience, and love.

I preached this series in a young urban church. This church faced similar threats to the recipients of 1 John: competing claims about faith, and uncertainty about how to know what’s true. I kept the series short and tried to teach the key ideas of the book. It’s a shorter series than I would have liked, but it still covers the main ideas.

Note that the texts overlap slightly in sermons one and two.

Text: 1 John 1:1-2:6
  • Title: When We Get Christianity Right
  • Big Idea: We get Christianity right when we make it about the real Jesus as the solution to our real sins.
Text: 1 John 1:6-2:11
  • Title: Three Tests
  • Big Idea: We can know we have faith if we believe the truth, obey Jesus, and love others.
Text: 1 John 2:12-3:10
  • Title: A Word to Genuine, Struggling Believers
  • Big Idea: Don’t live for this world, and don’t settle for lies about God.
Text: 1 John 3:11-4:21
  • Title: The Defining Characteristic
  • Big Idea: Love is the defining characteristic of God and his people.
Text: 1 John 5:1-21
  • Title: What We Know
  • Big Idea: We can know what’s true, and what’s true can give us the assurance we need to live for God even when it’s hard.


The recipients of this letter faced a challenge that many of our churches face: the threat of false teaching and uncertainty about how to respond. Churches and individual Christians can start to wobble when they aren’t sure who or what to believe. It shows that false teaching is a serious threat to the church.

First John provides an opportunity to preach on a number of topics that are relevant in every church:

The reliability of the gospel (1:1-4): How can we know the truth about Jesus? What evidence exists, and how reliable is it?

How to deal with sin (1:5-2:6): What are some wrong ways of thinking about sin? Are we expected to attain sinless perfection? And what happens when we keep sinning even when we shouldn’t?

What worldliness is and how to respond to it (2:15-17): What is worldliness? Is it going to movies or listening to a certain kind of music? It sounds like such an outdated term. What exactly is it, and why should we be concerned about it?

How to deal with false teachers and those who leave the church (2:18-27; 4:1-6): Christians disagree on many issues. How can we know what’s important? And how should we respond to teachers who disagree on major issues? What does the Bible teach about people who seem to leave the faith?

The centrality of love in the Christian life (3:11-24; 4:7-21): We all like the idea of love, but it’s hard and inconvenient. What does it look like to be a loving church, and why is it so important?

Obedience as a response to the gospel (2:3-6; 5:1-12): We believe that we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works. So what role does obedience play in our salvation?

Assurance of salvation (5:13-15): A lot of people continue to question if they are really believers or not. How can we know that we have eternal life?

Idolatry as a threat to the Christian life (5:21): It may seem that idols are something that people deal with in other religions and in other places. According to John, though, we face the issue of idolatry. What does John mean, and how can we avoid this danger?

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” is a surprising ending to the book. Some argue that it’s a warning against literal idols. Others suggest that it’s written metaphorically, a warning that accepting beliefs contrary to God is actually a form of idolatry. Those who deny the truth about Jesus do not worship the Jesus John knew (1:1-4). If the latter view is correct, it’s a fitting and poignant summary of the entire book, and it emphasizes what’s at stake when we drift from the gospel.

It can be helpful to outline how many times John speaks of knowing. John repeatedly says that we can know certain facts: that we know him (2:3), that it is the last hour (2:18), that we are children of God (5:2), and more. Studying these passages can help Christians who wonder if we can really know the truth about Jesus because they question the reliability of Scripture, are confused by competing theological claims, or because they have a problem believing any truth claims.

First John is a joy to preach because it’s a letter written by a pastor who’s concerned for his people. Every good pastor can relate. We know what it’s like to watch people leave because of aberrant theology. We see people struggle in trying to figure out what to believe, sometimes struggling with doubts about who Jesus is and what he did. We understand the challenges of striving for holiness while still falling into sin. We know what it’s like to watch someone struggle with assurance that they have truly believed. We can preach this book with the same love, aspirations, and concern for our churches and for the truth of the gospel.

Theological Themes

One of the challenges in applying 1 John is that John tends to write in absolutist categories: light and darkness, truth and falsehood, love or hate, children of God or children of the devil, and more.

For instance, he states that believers do not keep on sinning (3:9; 5:18). This doesn’t match our experience and seems to contradict 1:9-2:1. It’s helpful to explain that John tends to see things in black and white terms, with no in between. Some suggest that he’s talking about a particular kind of sin: either habitual sin, or a certain type of sin (i.e. apostasy) that cannot characterize believers (see 5:16-17). John may just be helping us see the shocking nature of sin: it should be unthinkable for someone who has experienced God’s saving love to continue to indulge in rebellion against him. In the same way that my mother may say, “Dashes don’t tell lies,” even though I’m sure we do sometimes, John says that believers don’t continue to sin.

Understanding what John means by “the water and the blood” (5:6) is also challenging. It seems to refute some claim that the false teachers made about Jesus, and we are left to work out what this might have been. It seems to refer to Christ’s baptism and atoning death. Jesus, the Son of God, became human, was baptized, and died. He didn’t become a deity at his baptism or give up his deity at his death.

Because 1 John is written to confront false teachers, it’s no surprise that it develops some important theological themes:

  1. God: John says that God is light (1:5; 2:8) and that God is love (4:8, 16, 19).
  2. Christology: First John begins with who Jesus is, how we can know the truth about him, and the result of receiving this good news (1:1-4). It emphasizes both the humanity and deity of Jesus (4:2-3; 5:20) and articulates a number of truths that we must believe about Jesus and the gospel (1:10; 2:22; 4:1-3, 15; 5:1).
  3. The Holy Spirit: John discusses anointing by the Holy Spirit (2:20–27) and his work in our lives (3:24–4:6).
  4. Sin and salvation: First John provides rich insight into the nature of sin (2:16), the origin of sin (3:8), degrees of sin (5:16-18), and how to deal with sin (1:5-2:2). It explains the atonement (1:7; 2:2; 3:8; 4:9-10) and what we must do to respond (5:1-12). It describes salvation as eternal life (1:1, 2; 2:25; 3:14, 15; 5:11, 12, 13, 16, 20). It also helps believers understand the nature of assurance that rests on Jesus, and yet is authenticated through transformation in the life of the believer (5:1-2, 13).
  5. Satan: John identifies the devil as the source of evil (3:8) who has power over the world (5:19), but whom believers have overcome (2:13-14).
  6. Eschatology: The book motivates believers with the dawning of the gospel and Jesus’ future appearing (2:8, 28) and paints a vision of our future transformation (3:2). We can have confidence on the Day of Judgment (4:17).

Although 1 John is written as a pastoral letter of concern, and not a theological treatise, it’s rich in its theology. I especially appreciate how it helps us understand Jesus and the atonement, both issues that need careful attention in the church today. I also appreciate how John ties together good theology with obedience and love. We tend to think theology is an enemy of these things; 1 John can’t imagine theology that isn’t linked to greater obedience and greater love.

My Encounter with 1 John

I had the privilege of hearing D.A. Carson teach through the Johannine epistles, with a group of pastor friends, in 2013. I finally got to preach through the epistles in 2016. I preached the second series listed above (“Getting Christianity Right”) but with the unimaginative title “The Letters of John.” Our series graphics featured a sun and heart, capturing the themes of “God is light” and “God is love.”

I pastor a young, urban church in a secular city. I wanted to show the importance of doctrine and the danger of false teaching, and how Christianity results in right belief and obedience and love. It feels like I pastor in a place like John’s audience, with people who are equally buffeted by divergent views and questions, along with those who argue that it doesn’t really matter what we believe.

I still feel challenged by 1 John, especially because it’s difficult to outline, because it keeps returning to the same themes, and because it speaks in stark black and white terms. But it’s a great book for any pastor who’s concerned about a church staying true to God when elements within the church (and sometimes outside) start to twist the gospel. I’d love to preach it again.


Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, ed. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).

Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000).

John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 19, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).

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