It is almost universally acknowledged that the Gospel of John and the Epistle 1 John have much in common. Regardless of whether these were written by the same person, the Epistle reflects the Gospel. David Smith summarizes the relationship between these two:
...the Epistle throughout has the Gospel as its background and is hardly intelligible without it. 1
The correspondence of the Epistle and Gospel is found right from the start:
1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3) 2
The writer is an original disciple: theirs is also the Gospel experienced. They are not alone in the group; there are others, who like the writer experienced Jesus when He was alive. The writer seeks the fellowship of a reader. This fellowship is not just with the writer; it includes those other original disciples. And it is fellowship with The Father and His Son Jesus Christ. (Note that without identifying the issue, the theme of fellowship identifies the problem: those who left and broke fellowship.)
An original disciple had known and followed Jesus when He was alive. They believed their faith in Him made them children of God and now gave them life in His name (immediate fellowship with God)3:
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12)
but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)
Importantly, an original disciple has specific instructions to go and make disciples of all nations and to teach them to obey the commands Jesus gave His disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). In terms of John's Gospel, the writer of this Epistle is basing their desire of fellowship from this prayer of Jesus:
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)
Jesus prayed for unity among those who would come to believe in Him through the word of the original disciples. This unity is the fellowship described and desired in the Epistle. Importantly, there is a purpose to this unity: so that the world may believe that you have sent me. In terms of the division which occurred, the lack of unity among the church is proof (to the world) that Jesus was not sent.
When read in conjunction with the Gospel the Epistle makes three points:
- As an original disciple their message is authentic.
- As one seeking fellowship their purpose is authentic.
- The purpose is "apostolic" evangelism: for the world to know Jesus was sent as a result of the message delivered by His original disciples.
The message of the Epistle (subtlety) incorporates a point central to the false teaching: Jesus was sent. The false teachers did not dispute whether Jesus came. Their belief was that He did not come in the flesh. To this the writer of the Epistle replies - "Jesus came so that those who believed through His original disciples would have a unique unity (with God and each other) which would prove to the world their message, Jesus was sent, is true."
Therefore, anyone who splits the group apart, is either not an original or true disciple and they never were part of that group. Their actions prove they were never true disciples, as the Gospel relates:
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)
31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, (John 8:31)
If there are original disciples, there are also those who originally turned away. These too could rightly claim they had seen His miracles and heard His teachings. In other words, the false teachers could make a claim to be original disciples. They too could say they had a message which they had seen and heard and handled. No doubt there were many who could say they had heard and seen the things Jesus had done; some of these claims could be false; some could be true.
The Epistle's answer to these "eye witness" claims (which might be valid) is that the fact they left (again?) proves they were never part of the group that stayed with Jesus when He was alive. In other words, the Gospel proves there are "eye witnesses" who stayed with Jesus and those who left Him and the Gospel also provides the means by which a reader may determine to which group a person making a claim belongs.
As original disciple, the writer of the Epistle presents two tests by which anyone in the Apostolic church can determine whether someone claiming to have an authentic eye witness is a true disciple:
- External: are they working for or against unity for all believers.
- Internal: does the Holy Spirit affirm the objective reality. (1 John 2:27)
The Epistle's answer to the question, "Did they go to a new religion?" is contemplative: "Did those who left in the Gospel ever accept what Jesus taught?" It also presents this question to a reader: "Who should you believe, an original disciple who stayed, or one who left?"
Since those that left were never part of the group, their most likely "next step" would be to return to their previous group. For the Gentile that would be their pagan religion and for the Jewish person that would be Judaism. If the Gospel is the basis for understanding the Epistle, then those who left returned to Judaism 4, like those described in John 6.
1. David Smith, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, volume 5 p 154 [Expositor's Greek Testament]
2. English Standard Version throughout.
3. The question focuses on the present tense situation. Fellowship also includes eternal life. The sequence for the original disciple is to become a child of God; go and make disciples of all nations teaching them to do what Jesus commanded (love one another); enjoy fellowship with one another (affirming the evangelistic message); receive eternal life.
4. Since Gnostic Judaism was present before the Christian Era, this might be a return to their previous type of gnosticism.