When I read 1 John, it seems to me that it was written in a hurry, with parenthetical thoughts not fully fleshed. (Specifically, the "sin that leads to death" reference, that I ask about in a different question.)

Also, it seems to end abruptly.

1 John 5:21 (NIV) Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

Was this an unfinished letter?


2 Answers 2


At first glance it does seem odd that John would leave this command dangling on the end of his letter. Why would he suddenly mention idols and not say anything more on the subject when he hasn't spoken about idols at all his letter. One explanation is that John had more to say about idol worship but his letter as it now stands is unfinished.

But this reference to idols is not at all out of step with the rest of John's letters. In fact idolatry could have been misconstrued as his point by some in his original audience if he had not added this command at the very end of his gospel.

John is combating a heretical teaching which claimed that Jesus did not come in the flesh. 1 John states

4:4 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

And 2 John 7 we read

7 I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

This explains in part John's reference to blood and water in 1 John 5:6

5:6 This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood.

John pushes back against this teaching, emphasizing the tangibility of the Word in 1 John

1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.

With all this emphasis on the tangibility of God in Jesus it probably would have been tempting for John's gentile audience to think in terms of idol worship. If God was manifested physically in Jesus why wouldn't they think that John was giving them permission to worship a tangible image of God like their former way of life and like surrounding culture.

But John adds this final command, almost as an afterthought, a post script, to prohibit this line of thinking. The tangibility of God in Jesus does not give us permission to worship idols.

  • 1
    1 John has no real introduction or conclusion which suggests that it was generic encyclical. It's likely 2 and perhaps 3 John were the type of cover letters that would have been attached to it. Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 20:34
  • Aah, that makes sense. I wish I could put the checkmark next to the comment! :)
    – Richard
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 20:39
  • My instincts tell me the answer should have something to do with "love" but I could be wrong. +1 for a solid answer.
    – Jas 3.1
    Commented Jun 11, 2013 at 20:42
  • 1
    I agree with @Richard on this: would you mind moving the comment into your answer. There's lots of good stuff in the post itself, but I felt like it didn't quite answer the question. (My guess reading the question was that 2 and 3 John contained the greeting and salutations.) Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 23:59

Malcolm Coombes ('A Different Approach To The Structure Of 1 John') explains the author's use of structure and other rhetorical amplification techniques, that clearly involved a great deal of thought and planning, inconsistent with leaving an incomplete letter. In spite of its apparent rambling nature it was not written in any sort of hurry.

Of course, if this were a letter, you would expect the author to introduce himself as the author, as he does in 2 John 1:1 and 3 John 1:1, or to sign off, as he does in 2 John 1:12-13 and 3 John 1:13-14. First John is not regarded by critical scholars as having been a letter, so it is neither unfinished nor damaged.

Harold W. Attridge says in 'Christianity from the Destruction of Jerusalem to Constantine’s Adoption of the New Religion: 70-312 CE', published in Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: A Parallel History of Their Origins and Early Development (edited by Herschel Shanks), page 172, that 1 John criticises ‘seccessionists’ who departed in a dispute over the fleshly (human) character of Jesus (1 John 4:1-3) and the reality of sin (1 John 1:8-10). After a lengthy polemic in which the 'elder' accuses his opponents of just about every wrong except idolatry, he finishes by imploring his faithful readers to avoid idols. This is surely one last dig at the former members of the community, even if he can not openly accuse them of this.

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