This letter bears the name of the writer, and is the first of three general epistles by John.
The writer nowhere indicates his name, but the uniform testimony of the early church affirmed that John the apostle was the writer. There is also a close similarity of thought and expression between the Gospel according to John and the epistle. John was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and brother of James. James and John were "surnamed Boanerges, which is, the sons of thunder" (Mk 3:17). Peter, James and John were the Lord's closest friends, but John held the distinction of being the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 19:26). John was an eyewitness of the person and labors of the Lord (I Jn 1:1-4; 4:14).
We cannot be sure about the destination of this epistle, but it was probably written primarily to the churches in and around Asia Minor, for a large part of John's life was spent at Ephesus. They were of all ages of Christian development, hated of the world, inclined to worldliness, and in danger of being led into doubt by some who denied the divinity of Christ.
The letter was probably written from Ephesus, but the precise dates are uncertain. The dates suggested range from A.D. 69 to A.D. 100, however most writers fix the time around A.D. 90-95.
The purpose of the letter was to warn against prevailing errors, and tell the disciples how to be sure to gain eternal life (5:13). One group of false teachers among the brethren questioned the divinity of our Lord (2:18-22; 4:15; 5:1). Others denied His humanity, and thus taught that His incarnation was but a myth (Heb 2:14-18; 4:15; I Jn 1:1-3; 4:3;5:6). There was a third group who taught that one could worship God with the spirit and indulge in every sin with the body. John refutes this creed by showing that every sin is transgression (2:3-6; 3:4, 8-10; 4:13; 5:16-17). Errors reflected in this epistle crystallized into a philosophy that became known as Gnosticism. It gave pure Christianity a terrific struggle during the second century. Cerinthians, Ebionites and Docetists threatened to undermine the gospel.
The material resembles a sermon more than an epistle. Although the thought is profound, the language is simple. The book contains many contrasts, parallelisms and repetitions. It reveals the writer to be both affectionate and severe, as all true disciples should be. The gentlest Christian may be a son of thunder (Mk 3:17).
The central theme of this epistle is fellowship with God through Jesus Christ His Son.