Judith Lieu states:
The First Epistle of John has often been likened to a spiral; again and again it returns to a point where it has been before and yet by bringing in a new element moves on a step further. This spiral is not merely a technique of literary style and structure, but is equally an expression of thought-structure. Inevitably, then, its theology cannot be separated out topic by topic; themes and ideas are interwoven, and it is impossible to explore one without having to say something about the others as well. 1
There is no consensus among scholars to adequately explain the style or the structure of the Epistle. Yet, as Lieu states, both are integral elements:
...to present 1 John’s theology through the stages of an argument would be to misrepresent it. Yet the letter does offer some hints as to a starting point. Its purpose is not first of all to engage in polemic with outsiders or with their views... Instead its purpose is stated explicitly at the beginning and effectively at the end – the proclamation and assurance of eternal life (1:2; 5:13; the theme is repeated at the very end of the letter in 5:20). 2
The scholarly issues including such the basics like to whom was it was written, and who wrote it, makes any answer to this question speculative. However, I believe there are reasonable assumptions on which to build a framework which is consistent with the repetition and spiraling form.
To begin, church tradition ascribes authorship to John the Apostle who wrote from Ephesus. This was widely accepted until the 1900’s but is now disputed by may scholars. However, as Colin G Kruse states since John the Evangelist has been named consistently in the writing of early church fathers, “it is hard to pass by this conclusion, despite widespread reluctance to accept it by many, but by no means all, modern scholars.” [John the Apostle]
As quoted from the OP's question the situation described in the Epistle was "the first real church split ‘occasioned [by more than] factiousness.’” Given the significance to John, the local church, and all churches, the acceptance and use of the Epistle by the early church is strong evidence in support of John’s authorship and a reasonable starting point.
The decision to place the Epistle from John in Ephesus about a problem in his church, aligns aspects of the Epistle to the historical setting recorded in line Acts and Revelation:
- In Miletus Paul told the elders of the church at Ephesus there will be an internal dispute which will draw away disciples. (Acts 20:17-31) [The problem found in the Epistle.]
- In Revelation, Jesus acknowledges the Church at Ephesus for testing and identifying those who claim to be apostles but are not. (Revelation 2:2) [Found in 2 and 3 John; implied in 1 John.]
This assumption also allows for a consistent sense of the use of the pronouns “we” “us” “you” and “I” used throughout the Epistle: John is writing about something his church experienced. There are other (original) disciples (true apostles of Revelation) with him (“we”) who also testify as to the events in (and following those in) the Gospel. Still it is John (“I”) who writes to his church ("you" and therefore also “us”). Thus one reason for the repetition is a result of John's relationship as a member to the church to whom he is writing.
The Epistle opens as a message proclaimed to all. It also continues individual messages directed to groups within the church. These are: tecknia, brethren, fathers, young men, paidia, and beloved. Another aspect of repetition can be attributed to these specific messages embedded within something intended for the collective whole. For example (ESV):
To all: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1:9)
To the tecknia: I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake. (2:12)
Including individual messages within a message directed to all is similar to the technique found in Revelation:
Both have the same components. The discrete arrangement of singular messages to a group used in Revelation is varied when groups are addressed more than once and when messages to individual groups are interspersed throughout the entire Epistle. Thus another aspect to repetition is driven by author's decision to divide his complete to a single group into pieces which are then woven into messages to other groups and to all groups.
Since John writes to his church in Ephesus, it is reasonable he would deliver the same message at the other churches in Asia, as was done with the Revelation. This is consistent with the content of 2 and 3 John where the title Elder:
implies a measure of authority since probably in 3 John and certainly in 2 John, it is used in writing to a church other than the author’s own (2 John 13); this would be even more true if in 2 John the author address a wider audience than a single church… Certainly 3 John implies a wider network than a single community: greetings are sent from and to those identified as ‘the friends (15); the author has attempted, unsuccessfully, to send a letter to ‘the church’…3
The Epistle is a single document intended to be delivered to all the churches in Asia. The impetus is a schism at John's home church in Ephesus:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
(1 John 2:19)
Seemingly those who left are not identified. It is the vague "they" who “went out from us.” Obviously John and the entire church at Ephesus knows who left. Reasonably, if John could be certain his Epistle would reach those who left, we would expect him to include a specific message to this group.
As the letter is not for Ephesus alone, it must address groups found in the other locations. Since there is a single letter, the individual groups in Ephesus John must see the same groups at the other location and delivers the same message to each individual group. The contrast between the individual messages in Epistle and Revelation is differences are determined by the group not by location. For example, unlike Revelation where different locations receive different messages, the Epistle is composed of messages to the fathers (in Ephesus) which are the same messages to the fathers (in Smyrna, Pergamus, and so forth). However, the reality is a schism took place at Ephesus and there is no basis for concluding schism have occurred at each of the other locations.
Therefore while false teachers have successfully orchestrated a schism at Ephesus, the same teachings by the same teachers may not yet have produced a split at the other locations. Since John knows the make-up of those who left in Ephesus, he also knows who would be susceptible to leaving at a different location. Not only should John address them, there would be a greater urgency in his message to a location not yet effected.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude John has in fact addressed the group that left. Given the content of the messages to the groups, it is the tecknia who left Ephesus and so might leave another location:
Little children (tecknia), keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
The tecknia are people who have heard the message but are not true disciples or true members of the church. Contemporary churches serve as the example. Many have some who attend to placate a parent, spouse, or friend; they do not worship The Resurrected Lord Jesus in truth and spirit. In this sense the Epistle reflects the same problems of false doctrine and indifference found in churches in Revelation.
So another repetitive element to the Epistle is driven by the fact there are those in the church who have heard both the true and the false apostles yet have not truly made the decision to become a part of the church. To these John repeatedly delivers the basics needed to have eternal life:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (2:1)
I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake (2:12)
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. (2:28-29)
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (3:7-8)
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (3:18)
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (4:4)
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (5:21)
tecknia is the diminutive of techne [G5040 - τεκνίον] a word John uses 4 times. The first use is:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children (τέκνα) of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (3:1)
John's theology is straight-forward:
- Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. If you have heard this message you are no longer living in ignorance of the truth; in fact the Word of God has reached the heart but its affect is uncertain (The Parable of the Sower). This person is a tecknia.
- Simply hearing and so knowing the message does not produce eternal life. One must believe it in order to become a child (teckna) of God. In terms of the language: a person moves from being a "little child" (the diminutive tecknia) of the world to a child (teckna) reborn of the will of God.
- If you are a teckna of God you have the assurance of eternal life and while remaining in the world you are a paidia who is maturing in Christ. The process of maturation means the church will be made up of teckna who are fathers, young men, brothers, and beloved.
While the message is straight-forward, John's technique of dividing portions directed to each group is primarily a result of reaching out to the tecknia to consistently give the basic beliefs necessary to become a child of God while also presenting both the positive and opposing side of the consequences of a person's response to the message.
In terms of the assurance of eternal life the overall message is:
- the basic beliefs which may produce eternal life
- the consequences of denying the beliefs
- the assurance of eternal life believers have. This assurance comes with immediate external present day results as well as the internal understanding or "confidence" of faith.
1. Judith Lieu, New Testament Theology, The Theology of the Johnannine Epistles, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 22
3. Lieu, p. 9