The letter of 1 John is written to the same community shaped and informed by the Gospel of John. If a reader has any familiarity with John’s Gospel, it becomes very clear in the first several verses of 1 John that one has entered the same territory. In fact, one may wish to have a copy of John’s Gospel open alongside a reading of 1 John—or to put it in more contemporary terms, one should have a browser tab open for the Gospel of John right next to the 1 John tab. Echoes of John’s Gospel in the letter include: “the beginning” (John 1:1-2; 1 John 1:1), and what is “seen” (John 1:14; 1 John 1:1), and the word (John 1:1; 1 John 1:1) and life (John 1:4; 1 John 1:1) and light (John 1:4-5; 1 John 1:5-7) and the concept of joy being made complete (John 15:11; 1 John 1:4).
But within the similarities are important differences and distinctions. Whereas John’s Gospel was written for the purpose of coming to belief in Jesus, 1 John is written for moral instruction for those who already believe and have “fellowship” with the community and, more importantly, “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). “The beginning,” therefore, in 1 John is not the primordial picture of pre-creational divine communion, but the origin of the Johannine community, whose progenitor is Jesus. The Word in the Gospel was the being who became enfleshed in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word of divine creation that gave birth to all things (John 1:3). The word here is the word of preaching and testimony that gave birth to the community (1 John 1:1-2).
Though the community, and the shape of its moral life, takes center stage throughout the letter, the letter’s opening makes it very clear that the priority is on the reality of divine activity that makes the community’s life possible. The NRSV translation obscures this point by beginning with “we declare,” when in fact those words are de-emphasized in the Greek by being placed much later in the sentence. Priority of place is given to the divine fact: “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” The reality of Jesus (embodied in the witness of John’s Gospel) stands in front of the proclamation of the church and is what gives the church its reason for existence and its mission. This exists and so we declare it. The distinction is subtle, but important: it is not the church who has the truth, but the Truth who has the church.
It is this vision of the priority of God’s being and activity that grounds the moral life of the community. From Jesus’s claim that God is light and there is no darkness in God comes the necessity of walking in the light in order to be in fellowship with God (1:5-6). In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12), in the letter the church is now called to walk by his light. Light and darkness are thus theological categories in John’s Gospel and moral categories in the letter. To have fellowship with Jesus and with the others in the Johannine community one must walk in the light. However, this is not to be construed as moralistic or holier-than-thou. Interestingly enough, walking in the light means confessing one’s darkness and sinfulness. The light is not for the purpose of displaying flawlessness, but for exposing the fractures—and then healing them. Ironically, it is the claim to be sinless that is actually a walking in the darkness, a self-deception (1 John 1:8). To walk in the light is to be made aware of the places where one falls far short of that light. To walk in the light is to be reminded that we are not the source or the sustaining energy of that light. Wesleyans reading this passage should not be dismayed, for John is not arguing against a vision of God’s perfect love inhabiting the Christian, reading further into the letter confirms this. In fact, this confession of sin in the light of fellowship with God is necessary for God’s perfect love to forgive and cleanse us from unrighteousness (1:9). God’s faithful and gracious forgiveness eagerly rushes in to those who truthfully confess their need of it. For a Christian to say otherwise, to refuse the need for forgiveness and restoration, is to deceive oneself, to not act rightly, and, worst of all, to call God a liar and call God’s activity needless (1:10).
John wants to make it well understood that the fact that God’s light exposes sinfulness is by no means permission to sin. Like in Paul, so for John, grace is no license to continue sinning. “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (2:1). However, the recognition is that we are frail and broken creatures, and the fellowship of the church will occasionally break down (anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes in a church will be able to bear witness to this fact). But John is by no means wanting to leave his community with the impression of a paralysis before the power of sin. They do not have to sin, and if they do fall into sin, something has been done about it already. God has sent an advocate for us: Jesus Christ the righteous. Christ’s triple office here as advocate, righteous one, and atoning sacrifice is the healing of the infirmity of human sinfulness. Jesus as advocate, stands alongside us before the Father and pleads our case. Jesus the righteous one is the model and pattern for renewed and transformed human existence, walking in fellowship with him means being conformed to the shape of his moral life. Finally, Jesus the atoning sacrifice is the one who reconciles and brings together the Holy God and sinful humanity.
It is important to get the theological picture right, as it determines the ethics that John is sketching out here. God is not an angry God that must be placated. God is a merciful God, who sends the Son, who desires fellowship, and who receives the atoning sacrifice through Jesus not just for the Johannine community, but for the whole world. God sends Jesus not to quell God’s anger, but to transform sinful humanity for the sake of atonement, at-one-ment, reconciliation, fellowship. It is God’s goodness that drives the moral vision in John’s community, which is why their life together, even amidst the difficulties of human brokenness and sin, is to be characterized by joy rather than fear (1:4; 4:18).
 C. Clifton Black, “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 382.
 Black, “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John,” 383: “This life, which appeared at a precise moment in history, molds the audition and vision of those who currently testify to that life as eternally significant.”
 See John Wesley’s statement that those growing in being perfected in God’s love have an ever-expanding sense of their need for God’s grace in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
 Black, “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John,” 388.
Pastor, Church of the Nazarene