I John is usually the first book a budding Greek scholar attempts to translate. Why? Well, the language is much simpler than other New Testament books. John also repeats himself frequently, which leads the translator to a better memorization of Greek vocabulary. But even though John repeats himself, he repeats important ideas that any church in any age needs to hear. Despite its simplicity, the themes of I John are quite rich. For this reason, preaching I John can be challenging, exciting, and edifying.
John writes this epistle in order to instruct the church to have fellowship with the Lord and with one another (1:3). With this main purpose in mind, how should the preacher preach the rest of this letter?
- Find the overall structure of the text
The structure of I John is not easy to find. In fact, finding a structure in any text can sometimes be more of an art than an exact science. I John has little progression in thought because, like the Epistle of James, John jumps back and forth between topics. In response to false teaching, John calls on the church to recognize what proper fellowship with God looks like. Three cyclical confirmations of fellowship can be discerned in I John: the practice of righteousness against the practice of sin, brotherly love, and correct Christology. Every pericope of I John falls under one of these broader categories.
- Take note of the rhetorical oddities
Why does John open by describing what he experienced in Christ’s presence instead of giving a standard epistolary greeting? Why does John all of a sudden start addressing children, young men, and older men in chapter 2? Why does he conclude his epistle with “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” when he never mentions idols in the preceding sections of the book?
These rhetorical oddities are not arbitrary. There is a specific purpose for which John includes these statements. This is not a call to speculate but a call to pay attention. Oddities in texts help us see that the writer is purposeful in his organization. He is conveying an agenda, so the readers/listeners will need to perk their ears. To understand the reason for these oddities, you must re-read the text and see how each oddity fits within each of the three cyclical themes. The oddities will then not seem so odd!
- Look for key themes and contrasts.
John opens this epistle quite unusually: no greeting, thanksgiving, or blessing at all. He opens in a way similar to his Gospel narrative. Instead of announcing Christ’s deity like he did in his Gospel, he opens his epistle with a tribute to Christ’s humanity. This is a repeated topic in this letter. Why? Like all of the other epistles, I John has strong polemics. False teachers had undoubtedly infiltrated the church. Wrong Christology leads to sinful living, and vice versa.
Brotherly love is one of the other themes. John is called the apostle of love for a reason. He uses the word “love” over and over again in his writing corpus. John explains that true love for God will lead to love for your brother. No love for your brothers equals no love for God.
To John, and the rest of the biblical writers for that matter, love for God and obedience to his commands always go hand in hand. Practicing righteousness is loving and knowing God, while active sinning is hatred toward God. God is the initiator of love. He was the one who actively loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. We love because he first loved us.
Key contrasts to take note of are light/darkness, life/death, truth/falsehood, and love/hate.
- Take note of all the “I am writing these things to you/I write to you” occurrences.
These statements help us grasp John’s tone and purpose in writing. He has multiple reasons for writing. Each time he writes this phrase, it is accompanied by a different reason. However, as you look through these stated reasons, you can synthesize and find the common thread: John’s affection for this flock. It becomes clear that John had a deep and abiding love for these people.
- Always have the whole of the text in mind when preaching the parts of the text
Your congregation should be able to recite in a nice, compact sentence what the Epistle of I John is about by the time you finish your series. In your introductions you need to make sure your audience has a clear understanding of the whole book before you preach any particular pericope. If you are afraid of being overly repetitious, don’t fret—so was the Apostle John!