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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD(Hons-London) DD.
John’s First Letter.
This first letter would appear to be a general pastoral homily from the Apostle John to the churches with whom he was in contact, but with urgent content. There were those about who were causing a disturbance of faith in the churches through their false teaching and John was concerned to put the situation right. This would explain its lack of an introduction as it was borne by known messengers to the various churches, thus not requiring any such introduction. It was to be read out in the churches.
Its basic message is clear. Its aim is to present Christ to the believing heart so that believers might open themselves to the light of God; enjoy ‘eternal life’, the life from God which they at present enjoyed and experienced continually; be a shining testimony in the world; and have great love for one another. It secondarily also refutes those who suggest that Jesus did not really become man, but only took on the appearance of a man, or alternately that the man Jesus was not really God, and that sin was not important, if it was real at all.
We may possibly summarise the letter as follows. It begins by presenting the glorious coming into the world of the Word of Life, the Eternal life Who was with the Father and was manifested to His own, even His Son, Jesus Christ (1.1-4).
It then goes on to look at God from two points of view, firstly that God is light, and secondly that God is love. Both put heretics to flight. The fact that God is light reveals sin and ensures that Christians, seen in His light, are aware of their own sinfulness (1.5-10). But thankfully God has made a way in Jesus Christ through His death on the cross by which their sinfulness can be dealt with so that it is not a final problem (1.7, 9; 2.1-2). Thus aware of their sinfulness they are to keep His commandments within their hearts and in their lives. This includes the ‘old commandment’ which sums up in itself all God’s past commandments both as revealed in the Old Testament and in the teaching of Jesus, commandments which in their character reveal the pure life, eternal life, and the ‘new commandment’ to love one another. (2.3-11). For they walk in His light. If they live by these they will not sin. And sin is not something that Christians continue in without regard. Indeed they are concerned not to sin.
Having come to know the Father and the One Who was from the beginning, and having learned to stand against the Evil One, they are to love God and not the world with all its aims, desires, trends, covetousness and vainglory (2.12-17). Furthermore false christs have come, and seek to deceive even God’s chosen ones, but He has given them an anointing, His Holy Spirit, by which they can see through all deceit and know the truth about the Father and His true and only Son, Jesus Christ, God made man (2.18-27).
Thus are they to abide in Him as they await His coming, and in hope of it and what it will do in them, they are to seek to make themselves pure (2.28-3.3). For Christians are not such that they continue in sin without regard. In heart they aim to be non-sinning ones, although as chapter 1 showed they sadly do sin. But they see sin as a contradiction to what they are, for they walk in God’s light.
Thus they must continue to treat sin seriously and abjure it, and they are especially to love one another and reveal it in their lives. And especially are they to obey His commandment that they believe in God’s Son, Jesus the Christ and love one another as He commanded them (3.4-24).
False prophets will, however, come, seeking to turn them from the truth as it is in Jesus, and they are therefore to recognise that they must test the prophetic spirits of all who are called prophets by seeing whether they declare that the man Jesus and the Christ are one and the same, and that He is the true Son of God (4.1-6).
As they walk in God’s light they are to recognise that they have been begotten by God, and that God is not only light but holy love. Thus by knowing His love as revealed in the cross, and in the Son Himself, and in their begetting by God, and in many ways, they are to reciprocate by loving Him and by loving one another. Indeed a major test of true Christians is that they love one another. And their knowing that they are begotten of God will ensure that they do this and will enable them to do it (4.7-5.3).
As a result in the end, because they are begotten of God, they will have victory, will believe that the man Jesus Who was crucified is truly the Son of God and will overcome the world through God’s special witness to Him. For in Him they have received eternal life and it is now theirs (5.4-13).
Thus they can have boldness in prayer as they seek to spread His word and reveal the will of God, they should pray for one another in their joint battle against sin, they must recognise that they are in the sphere of God’s light and love, so that they are kept by God Who has begotten them, while the world lies in the Evil One. Thus do they know that they are of God, that God’s Son has come, giving them an understanding so that they know Him Who is true and His Son Jesus Christ, for this is the true God and the source of eternal life. And finally they are to keep themselves from all influences of idolatry of any kind, from the earthly manifestation of the Evil One (5.14-21).
The first part of the letter (from 1.5-3.10) concentrates on the fact that God is light (1.8) and that therefore Christians must treat sin and God’s commandments seriously (as certain adversaries were wont not to do) and walk in His light, the second part commences at 3.11 and stresses the centrality of love in connection with those who walk in the light. In fact love for one another is only mentioned once in 1.1-3.10a, and that is in 2.10. From 3.11 onwards it abounds closely connected with the idea that God is holy love. Central to both sections is belief in and response to the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ, Who came to the world in human flesh, becoming a man among men, and the fact that God offers eternal life to those who respond to Him. On this basis let us look at the letter in depth.
The Word of Life Declared (1.1-4).
1.1-4 ‘That which was (imperfect) from the beginning, that which we have heard (perfect), that which we have seen (perfect) with our eyes, that which we beheld (aorist), and our hands handled (aorist), concerning the Word of life, (and the life was manifested (aorist), and we have seen (perfect), and bear witness (present), and declare to you (present) the life, the eternal life, which was (imperfect) with the Father, and was manifested to us (aorist)); that which we have seen (perfect) and heard perfect) we declare to you also (present), that you also may have fellowship with us (present): yes, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ: and these things we write, that our joy may be made full (or ‘fulfilled’).’
The main verb in this complex sentence is ‘we declare to you’. This letter is a declaration, and John’s purpose is to declare Christ in all His fullness. But the question is, what does he wish to declare? And his answer is, ‘That which was (imperfect) from the beginning, that which we have heard (perfect), that which we have seen (perfect) with our eyes, that which we beheld (aorist), and our hands handled (aorist), concerning the Word of life.’
So from the beginning of all things there was that which already was, that which already existed before time began, that which still continues in being, and ever will, that which was, that which is, and that which will be (compare Revelation 1.4, 8). And it is that which John seeks to declare.
The use of the neuter pronoun ‘that’ stresses the all-pervasiveness of what he is speaking about. ‘That’ which is spoken of was all in all. It was everything. Apart from ‘that’ there was nothing. The masculine pronoun (which would have indicated ‘the Word of life’ as a person) would have drawn attention away from the fact that what he was describing was this all-pervasive ‘everything’. God was all. Prior to the beginning there was nothing apart from God and His Word and His Spirit. And he will now reveal and declare that which already existed when the beginning began, and has been ever since. And it is ‘concerning the Word of Life’ Who also existed in the beginning.
So what John is telling us is that He Who was always in existence in the beginning, He Who was everything, came out of eternity into time, He came as the One Who ‘was continually in existence even in and before the beginning’, and He came in Jesus. Thus he is declaring that this Jesus Christ of Whom he will write has eternal essence and existence, and comes from the Source of all things, because He is essentially in His being of the Source of all things. The use of the neuter pronoun ‘that’ draws attention to the fact that he wants us to look at What Jesus is rather than just Who He is. Here is the Almighty, pre-existent One, the All-in-all, come as a Word from God bringing life, come from the Beginning, personally revealing God to man (John 14.6-11; Hebrews 1.1-3).
John is bringing out two aspects here. The first that ‘we’ (those who had been with Jesus) had heard Him and seen Him with their own eyes (4.14), and still did so. The perfect indicates something happening in the past and continuing into the present. He cannot forget the glory of it and it is still with him. We heard, and we still hear, we saw, and we still see. He is stressing that it was a real experience and that so it will ever be with them. There is both an emphasis on their actual hearing and seeing of Him as He was in the flesh (John 1.14), and on the fact that spiritually that hearing and seeing still goes on in a deeper way, for it is imbedded in their hearts, illuminated by the Spirit, and experienced daily in their lives because He is the living One, the Word of life.
To John and those who had been with Jesus, Jesus is ever present, continually heard, continually ‘seen’, for though His physical presence has departed, His spiritual presence is ever more near, not just in memory but because He is with them always even as He promised (Matthew 28.20). And what was true for him and for them was true for all those who have walked with Jesus and are truly His, whether living or dead. And was in a very real sense true still for all those who now followed Jesus.
‘That which we have heard.’ Throughout the ministry of Jesus they had heard His words, they had wrestled with them, and then finally through the Spirit’s illumination those words had sunk deeply into their hearts, and they had finally understood them. And all that they had heard from Him he wishes to communicate, and all that they had come to understand that those words meant he wishes to communicate. Through hearing they had not only received the word of life, but had also come to understand and more fully appreciate He Who was the Word of Life (John 14.6), and they longed to communicate Him to others.
‘That which we have seen (perfect) with our eyes.’ They had not only heard, they had seen. They had seen the wonder of His life, the depths of His love, the awe-inspiring holiness of His light (John 3.16-21). They had watched and they had wondered. They had seen His glory manifested in the Transfiguration (Mark 9.1 onwards). They had beheld His advance into suffering. They had experienced His self-revelation through His word in the Upper Room. They had seen and handled Him in His glorious resurrection body. And at last finally the Holy Spirit had illuminated it all in their hearts so that they were as men who saw clearly. And what he had seen he now longs to declare, to pass on, that others might see Him too.
The second aspect, lest we spiritualise too much, is to emphasise boldly the actual physical aspect of the seeing and the handling. We saw, and our hands handled. The aorists emphasise the once for all nature of the seeing and handling, and the handling stresses the physical aspect. It happened to us all (those who followed Jesus in His life on earth). We actually saw Him in the flesh, and we handled Him in the flesh, and He was truly flesh, He Who was from the beginning, God made man. Here the thought is of witness from the past rather than of continuation into the present, and the ‘handling’ especially has in mind the words of Jesus to Thomas (John 20.27 see also verse 20) and to His disciples, ‘see My hands and My feet that it is I Myself, handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see Me as having’ (Luke 24.39). He can assure them that Jesus really was a man of flesh and bones, a true human being.
In spite of some commentators it is not enough here to see but the message. The message was the Man. It was of Him that they heard, it was He Whom they saw, it was Him that they beheld and handled, both in day to day life and in His glorious resurrection body. And He was the bringer of life. He was the Word of Life, and was Himself the Life, and the great life-giver (John 14.6; 11.25; 5.21), communicated through the word of life.
We could spend hours just considering the significance of what it means that He is the Word of Life (John 1.4-5), for He is the life-giving Light of Life (John 8.12, compare verse 5 here), and the life-giving Bread of Life (John 6.35). He creates life within and feeds the souls of men. He spoke at creation and life came into being. He is thus the source of all life, and of all living things. But that, while wonderful, is here secondary. For now He has spoken in a deeper way and His word brings a greater and more wonderful life to men’s hearts, a new creation, spiritual life, a life that is Himself (John 14.6), a life that comes from Him as the light of life (John 8.12), an ‘eternal’ life (verse 2). John wants them to see that they are to receive not only a teaching, but a life-giving Person. For when the word truly enters men’s hearts so does the Word Himself (Ephesians 3.17). And then they too enjoy eternal life (verse 2; 2.25; 5.11, 13; John 5.24) as a present possession, a life imparted by Him Who is the Life, which will result in the final glorious resurrection of life (John 5.29; 11.25).
‘(And the life was manifested (aorist), and we have seen (perfect), and bear witness (present), and declare to you (present) the life, the eternal one, which was (imperfect) with the Father, and was manifested unto us (aorist)).’ Having mentioned the Word of life John now wants to emphasise in parenthesis what he means by that Word of life. It is not a teaching, but a Person. He was ‘manifested’ in a once for all way in His life on earth and in His resurrection. The aorist stresses the fullness and completeness of that manifestation. And the Life consists of the Eternal Life Who had ever been with the Father, but Who came down to earth, and was seen, and can now be testified to by those who saw Him and knew Him, and who now declare Him to all. He indeed is ‘the Life’ (John 14.6), the eternal Life (John 17.3), the source of all life (John 1.4), the provider of eternal life to His own (John 5.26), Who was with the Father but had now become Man.
‘The life was manifested (aorist).’ There had been a fullness of manifestation once for all. In Jesus that Life had been made fully known.
‘And we have seen (perfect), and bear witness (present), and declare to you (present).’ And now those who had been privileged to be witnesses of that Life, and were indeed continually so, were now continually bearing witness and declaring it to those who would receive it. And his hearers were to recognise that what they received they received from the testimony of eyewitnesses, and from the testimony of those who had continually experienced Him through hearing, sight and touch.
‘The Life, the eternal one, which was (imperfect) with the Father.’ This is what is declared, He Who is the Life, the Life of the ages, Who was continually (imperfect) in existence in the closest of permanent relationships (pros ton patera - compare John 1.1, ‘pros ton theon’) with the Father. He Who is therefore the Eternal Life par excellence, Who is the source of all life in His face to face and intimate relationship with His Father (John 5.26). (Pros with the accusative indicates intimate relationship).
‘And was manifested to us (aorist).’ Here is the wonder to John He was not only manifested, He was especially manifested to His own disciples, ‘to us’. He was seen and known by those who heard Him, who saw Him, handled Him and touched Him. This was not brief manifestation of glory (although there had been that - Mark 9.1 onwards) but a continual daily manifestation over a period of years as true man, and yet as the One Who was the Life Who had come from God.
‘That which we have seen (perfect) and heard (perfect) we declare to you also (present), that you also may have fellowship with us (present): yes, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ Having digressed in order to expand on his theme John now comes back to the main point. He has been declaring Christ as the Word of Life, the Word of life Whom he and his fellow-disciples had seen and heard, and Whom they still saw and heard in a different way, He Who is the Eternal Life. And his purpose was that through receiving from him that word and that witness which will bring home to them the Word of Life his readers too may be joined together with them ‘in fellowship’, sharing all spiritual blessing in common, including the blessing of the eternal word of life, and being joined together with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ in the same ‘fellowship’ in God that they, His disciples, had known with and through Him, and now knew with and through Him, a fellowship which brought them into sharing this life in common with God (see John 17.20-21). For in knowing the only true God, and especially as knowing Him through the One Whom He had sent, Jesus Christ, they would have eternal life. Indeed that was eternal life (John 17.3)
The word ‘koinonia’ (fellowship) indicates a closeness of relationship. It can signify the marriage relationship, a true and working partnership, a oneness of many, and it can mean to be so close together that all is shared, that their aims and goals are shared, that they have all things that are important in common. It represents a mutual sharing, in this case of spiritual life. It is an enjoying of the oneness of the spiritual life, that sense of being bound together that all true believers enjoy because they have received life from God, and it is a ‘fellowship’, a unity, that they will also share with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Each enjoys individual life and yet in koinonia it is a shared life, a life that blends with other lives, a life that comes from the Word of Life, and makes all one (John 17.22). And through this we are made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4), and know the Father and His Son Jesus Christ (John 17.3) in a similar shared relationship.
‘With the Father.’ That is with the One Who is over all, the Father of lights (James 1.17), the One after Whom every fatherhood in Heaven and earth is named (Ephesians 3.14). ‘Of lights’ may there be a plural of intensity signifying the fullness of light, or it may be signifying that of all the glorious lights on earth He is ‘the Father’, enjoying in Himself an intensity of light that is greater than all, so that He Himself is the true light, so full and so glorious and so enduring that it is a light that cannot be limited by shadows, for He is the Unchangeable One, the Father after Whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named. In this is depicted His holiness and His great overall authority. Thus the calling is to the ‘fellowship’ of the close knit spiritual family with and under the Father in His glorious light and authoritative and loving fatherhood.
‘And with His Son Jesus Christ.’ Here ‘His Son’ is specifically connected with the Father on the divine side of reality. Their essential oneness in essence is revealed here by the word ‘Son’. He is ‘the Son’, the One Who comes forth from God and is of the very nature of God. And our being united with the Father is also our being united with His Son. For here especially He is ‘His Son’ as over against us, and yet having fellowship with us. And that Son is clearly identified, He is Jesus Christ, the One Who walked on earth as a man among men. He is both God and man. So from the earthly hearing, and seeing, and handling, from the earthly relationship with the Word of Life, we move on into the enjoyment of a heavenly relationship with Him in a glorious spiritual relationship such as redeemed men can have with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
This title ‘His Son Jesus Christ’ is the equivalent of Paul’s ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. Both signify Godhead, the former by relationship the latter by being exalted and given the name LORD (Yahweh).
‘And these things we write, that our joy may be made full (or ‘fulfilled’).’ Finally John declares that his reason for writing is that his joy might be made full, might overflow, as he sees his readers participating in and enjoying the same fellowship with God and with fellow-believers as he enjoys. Nothing was more joyous to John than to see others entering into spiritual blessing.
An alternative well attested reading is ‘that your joy might be full’. In this case the idea is simply that they too might know the joy that passes all understanding, joy in God and in Jesus Christ.
God Revealed As Light Which By Its Nature Constantly Reveals Man’s Sinfulness and Calls Him To Repentance (1.5-2.2).
1.5 ‘And this is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’
If you asked most people what the message of Jesus, the Word of Life, was, they would probably reply, ‘it is that God is love’. But John here tells us differently. He points out that the message of Jesus is that ‘God is light’, a light in which there is no darkness, a light of self-revelation (compare Psalm 27.1; 36.9; Isaiah 49.6), a light where there is no alienation for those who walk in the light, a light where there is no moral deviation, where all is true, and pure, and good. But for that reason for those who are in darkness, both intellectually, because they have spurned God’s self-revelation (Romans 1.18-23), or morally, because they spurn their consciences, there is no place in the presence of God. This was the first essential basic of the teaching of Jesus, that God is holy, and pure, and true, and righteous, and none can come to Him but those who can bear the light. That was why He declared that He Himself had come as a light into the world so that people might let that light shine on them revealing the truth about them, and then respond to that light by turning from sin and receiving forgiveness through His name, and by that means thus coming to Him Who is ‘light’.
This is of crucial importance. His later declaration that ‘God is love’ (4.8, 16) must be seen in this context. ‘God is light’ is primary. In His essential being He is light. And in the context this means both moral light and self-revealing light. And the result of coming to that light and walking in it is that such men will love one another and will love God and keep His commands (5.3), both because they are loved by Him (3.16; 4.9-11, 16, 19), and because they see truly, and they will thus experience the glorious reality that God in His essential being is love, pure love, holy love revealed in that sphere of light (4.7-9; 3.14). But it is not a love that tolerates darkness. It is not a love that overlooks or tolerates sin. It is a love revealed in His begetting as His own those whom He draws to Himself (4.7; John 6.44), in supplying them with ‘life’ (4.9) and in providing for them propitiation for their sins (4.10). It is a love revealed in light. It is thus impossible to walk within that sphere of light and not reveal love for the brethren (4.11, 21; 5.1). We note here that the love of which he speaks is love for God and for one another in Christ. Love for outsiders is not mentioned here although it will result. For God’s people walk in the sphere of light and love, and have love for one another.
He said elsewhere that in the coming of Jesus, God’s light had come into the world (1.9; 3.19), for He had come from Him Who was light, revealing and shining out that light (Hebrews 1.2), but that because men were sinful they loved darkness rather than light and turned from His light and thus they turned from God. They were like crawling insects hiding from the light under a stone, who once the stone is removed scuttle immediately for cover seeking a welcome darkness. But He also indicated that there were those who would respond to the light, letting it shine on their lives revealing all their moral ugliness, so that they might then turn to Him to have that ugliness removed and be transformed. Then they might walk with God and be approved by Him (John 3.19-21).
Isaiah saw that light in Isaiah 6, and it made him cry out, ‘Woe is me, for I am destroyed. For I am a man of unclean lips -- and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ And it was only through the blood shed on the coals of the altar that he was able to find forgiveness and restoration. So it is with all who come to God. At some stage they become aware of their total unworthiness as the light of God shines on them revealing their true condition, and then they seek forgiveness through the blood of His cross. Only then can they know Him and rest content in His presence.
This is no easy believism, no being mollycoddled into the Kingly Rule of God. It cries out that men recognise that God is pure light, and that if we would know Him and enter into His presence it can only be by being made fully clean, fully whole, able to face the light. There is no exemption from this, no exception, for God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. That is why the offering of Jesus Christ once for all as a sacrifice for sin was so necessary. Only through His pure righteousness being put to man’s account, and man’s sin being punished and paid for through His cross, could men ever come to the God who is pure light.
So John stresses that God is pure light, and that there is no place in His presence for those who walk in darkness. The ideas of light and darkness as related to the divine were ones that were well known in John’s day and were found in a number of religions, and especially from this point of view in the writings of the Qumran community (included in the Dead Sea Scrolls) and thus current in that time. But the idea as taken up by Jesus and by John is given its own unique moral significance. God is light in that He is wholly moral and wholly self-revealing to those who can receive it, with the result that sin and spiritual ignorance, which are symbolised by darkness, are abhorrent to Him, the sin and ignorance which are due to man’s rebellion against Him, and result from the refusal to respond to His light. And God’s light makes men aware of sinfulness (John 3.19-21), and reveals their spiritual ignorance (John 1.4-5, 9-12) and is consonant with His life which He offers to men (John 8.12) which brings them light.
In the light of John 8.12 we can indeed say that ‘God is light’ could be equated with the idea that ‘God is life’. Jesus there declared that He was the Light of the world and as such brought men the light of life, the life which can be the light of men when they respond to Him, eternal life, relieving their darkness, illuminating their souls and bringing home to their hearts His moral demands. For His life is light. Thus the Word of life (verses 1 and 2) brings home to men the God Who is light and makes them aware that if they come to Him they come to the light. They cannot have the One without the other.
1.6 ‘If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.’
Here he makes that position crystal clear. Because God is light no darkness can survive in His presence. To say that we have fellowship with Him, that we share a life in common with Him, that we live in His presence, that we have an open relationship with Him, while walking in darkness, that is, while not allowing Him to reveal to us the awfulness of our sin, and to illuminate our hearts concerning Jesus Christ, is to lie. It means that we are not acting in accordance with the truth, that our lives are a lie and that we are deceived, that we have failed to come to the light of God.
There is, says John, no way of having dealings with God until we have, as far as we are aware, brought the whole of our lives into His light. For God is not available to those who cling to sin, and live deliberately in darkness. They have no part in Him. God is light, and until we recognise that fact and respond to it by letting Him deal with us about our sin, we have no part in God. We are rejecting the truth and deceiving ourselves. It is true that to begin with our awareness of that light may be dim, and that we will grow as we come to know Him better, but as we do become more aware of Him, and do come to know Him better, that light will shine ever more brightly in our hearts and we will become more and more aware of our own sinfulness, and of the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ Who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4.4) bringing continuing salvation to our souls. This is what being a Christian is all about.
And he could have added, Did not Jesus Christ Himself say, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8.12). So He too is light as God is light, and we cannot follow Him and walk in darkness.
1.7 ‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’
Here is the other side of the matter. If we do come to God. If we do walk in His light, responding to His word and to His commandments. If we do open up our lives honestly so that He can reveal to us our sin and deal with it. If we do walk with Him Who gives us the light of true life which shines continually within us. Then we are coming to God as He really is (not as man thinks that He is), we are coming to the One Who is the light, Who dwells in light, and recognising Him as such. And the result will be joyous fellowship with all true believers, with all things open between us, with no sin hidden, and the further result will be that the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, ‘goes on cleansing us’ (present tense) from all sin.
It is true that John is not here dealing with the question of entry into salvation, for he assumes that already for his readers (although warning against complacency - 2.4). Rather he is talking of walking truly with God. But let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that if we see ourselves as ‘saved’ we need not then worry. That we can ignore this and leave it for others. For if God is light, and that light is not producing the effect in us that the light of God should, then we must seriously ask ourselves whether we are saved at all, whether we truly know God. If God is light and we come to Him but are not affected by that light, the question is, have we come to Him at all, or simply to a god of our own imagination? For when God saves He makes His salvation effective. It may take time for that effectiveness to break through, and there may even be times of stumbling, but eventually that salvation must fully break through. And if it does not we must ask if such a person is really ‘saved’, and ‘being saved’. God the Saviour does not fail in His purposes.
But on the other hand the comforting thing about it is that if we are heavy laden with our sins, and are feeling aware of our guilt, we can come constantly to God’s light with a longing to be delivered, and cry to Him for forgiveness, then we can be certain sure of the cleansing that comes through the blood of Jesus. His blood (His effective sacrifice on our behalf) will cleanse us continually from all sin, known or unknown and we will be kept wholly clean in His sight.
In the words of the hymnwriter,
And note finally the stress again on the fact that Jesus Christ is ‘His Son’. John continually stresses this uniqueness of Jesus, for there were those who failed to recognise it. He is, he says again, God’s true Son, of the same nature and essence, distinct and unique and on the divine side of reality. That is why His blood, His sacrifice of Himself, can be continually effective on our behalf.
1.8 ‘ If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’
Those who are His are very much aware of sin, the sin that plagues their hearts and lives and seeks to draw them away from His ways. For the truth is that if we are His the light of God will shine on the hearts of His own, revealing to us our sinfulness. But it will also bring home to us Christ as our Saviour and Lord. And being such men we will never doubt our own sinfulness as we are in ourselves.
This ‘sin’ is defined in 3.4 as ‘lawlessness’, the refusal to respond to and obey God’s law. Thus John is declaring that there is within us all a streak of lawlessness, of rebellion, of unwillingness to submit. And the response to such is to come to the light and be open with God and with each other for the purpose of submission.
The message that John brings is not that men have been purified as a result of some religious ordinance and can therefore come into God’s presence without a qualm, (which probably some were declaring), and therefore do not need continual forgiveness. It is that men without exception are sinful. ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ Note the singular for sin. This may be because it speaks of the sinful tendency within our nature, the sin that is so much a part of what we are, deeply rooted within us, our lawless nature. Or it may refer to sin seen as a whole, differing in sins done from one to another although all coming from the same root and all disobeying the law of God. Or it may be referring to the guilt associated with sin. Or it may include all with each left to apply it to his own situation. It tells us that to deny this fact, or to claim that some religious ordinance or experience has totally removed it, is not to improve us or increase our worthiness. It is to deceive ourselves about what we are and to avoid the truth. It is to ignore the fact that morality is of prime importance. It makes us liars to ourselves and to God. It means that we have not truly come to Him who is pure light. For if we had so come we would be aware of our sinfulness within from which we can never be fully free in this world, although we may be victors over it. If we would come to God we must first face up to sin and morality.
For the truth is that we are all made up of sinful flesh which constantly seeks to drag us away from the ways of the Spirit, to drag us down into sin and disobedience (Galatians 5.16). And to be aware of that is to be on our guard and with Christ’s help and the uplifting power of the Spirit to find deliverance from it. But let us drop our guard and grow careless towards God, and sin will have us in an instant. Once we deceive ourselves and fail to recognise the truth, we are undone and will soon find ourselves constantly sinning. As Cain was told so long ago, ‘if you do not do well, -- sin crouches like a wild animal at the door’ (Genesis 4.7).
‘The truth is not in us.’ If we say that we have no sin we are controlled by falsehood and not by truth. Truth has not been allowed its way within us. It has been turned out and rejected.
1.9 ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
The way to deal with sin is not by denying it or hiding from it, but by being open to the God Who is light. Then we can bring to Him those sins that grieve Him, that are revealed by His light, openly admitting them and acknowledging them to Him, and then know that He is the faithful God, the One Who is true to His promises and to His covenant with us, and that He will justly forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. The last fact is most important, ‘all unrighteousness’. He does not just forgive the sins of which we are aware, but also those of which we are unaware. When we are open with Him He cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
The word for ‘confess’ means ‘say along with’. To ‘confess your sins’ means to say along with God how He views your sins. To join in with Him in His decision about them. To agree to see them as God sees them, as they are, and not to seek to dismiss them as merely blunders or errors without a moral significance. Thus to be honest and open with God about them. Being open about moral failure is the first step to being free of it.
Note first here the stress on the faithfulness of God. If we are His He constantly watches over us and He is faithful to us, for He has brought us within His covenant (see 1 Corinthians 1.8-9) and we are His. And because of that faithfulness forgiveness is assured. There can be no room for doubt. For He Who made the provision for our sin through the shedding of His blood, will also faithfully apply it when we call on Him, to remove every blot and every stain (2.2). Then we will not only be forgiven, but will be made fully clean. It is a day by day cleansing, and it is complete.
And note secondly that God does it justly. There is here no casual overlooking of sin. He Who is light cannot be casual about sin. He is rather able to cleanse us from sin because it has been borne by another. God does not go against His own righteousness in forgiving, for He has Himself ensured that the guilt of that sin has been placed on the One Whom He sent as Saviour of the world (4.14). ‘He has made Him sin for us, He Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God through Him’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). ‘Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2.24). For when Christ died, we who are His died in Him, and through Him therefore we have paid the price of sin and have been given resurrection life (Galatians 2.20).
But that forgiveness, while in one sense once for all (Hebrews 10.10-14), because we have been sanctified by Him, must be constantly applied because we still continue as sinners in our flesh. And here the assurance is given that when we are continually totally open with God about our sins His blood continually cleanses (present tense) us from all sin and delivers us from all unrighteousness.
We note here that God does not demand great things of us. He does not call on us to in some way do a great penance for what we have done wrong. He does not demand great sacrifices. He recognises what we are and He freely forgives. And all that He requires of us is that we are open with Him and bring our sins openly to Him and seek his forgiveness and cleansing, with the determination to as far as possible be done with sin (3.5-6) and to walk in His light. Forgiveness, at least to us, is free, although to God it was very costly, for it took the life of His Son.
This may then raise the question, does this mean that we can then continue in sin so that God’s forgiveness can abound? John answers that question immediately in 2.4. Those who truly know God will not even think like that. They know Him as the light and they want to be like Him. They want to walk in His light. No one who deliberately disobeys His demands can say that they ‘know Him’. Indeed it must be so for He is light. Paul answers the same question even more strongly from a different angle. ‘God forbid!’, he says, ‘shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?’ (Romans 6.2). The words here are of great comfort to the weak sinner who weeps over his sin and longs to be free from it, and yet seems constantly to stumble in it. He knows that there is a fount of forgiveness constantly open for him in his need. But they are no comfort at all to the complacent sinner. The latter will rather one day hear the voice that will say, ‘Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do the things which I say?’ (Luke 6.46). He said that the ruin of their house will be great (Luke 6.49).
This is not a question of earning salvation by the way we live. To make such an effort would be the utmost folly. We would finish up crying with Isaiah, ‘Woe is me, for I am undone’. It is but to recognise that those whom Christ begins to save must change because He will ensure that it will be so. It is to recognise that those who come to the light must necessarily be affected by the effect of that light. All we can do is respond to His work within us because His Spirit enables us, and even that is through God’s working (Philippians 2.13) but the work of His Spirit is never ineffectual and therefore the effects will be seen, and John is describing them here.
1.10 ‘If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
John once again returns to the question of those who declare themselves in no need of forgiveness. They, he says, are in the wrong. They have clearly not come to the God who is light. They most of all need forgiveness for they are liars. ‘If we say that we have not sinned we make God a liar’, and have clearly not received His word. For does His word not say that sin is to come short of the glory of God? (Romans 3.23). And is there any living man who would dare to say that he in no way comes short of the perfection and holiness of God? Such men are deceived and unaware of the reality of sin. They may achieve their own petty little standard, but they have failed to be aware of God’s true standard which requires total moral and spiritual perfection, a perfection beyond their present capability. It was such men as this that John had in mind when he wrote these words, men who had come into a false position, men who had dismissed morality as irrlevant, men who needed to be renewed in an awareness of their own sinfulness, that they might return to the true light, and to the true God and His true Son Jesus Christ.
That Christians can have victory over known sin through Christ and His Spirit at work within them is gloriously true. But in all there will be sins of omission, sins of falling short, which while they may not be obvious to them will at times be obvious to others. Thus, says John, we must all acknowledge that if we say that we have not sinned we prove our own folly and make God a liar (that is One Who teaches falsehood - 2.22).
2.1-2 ‘My little children, these things write I to you that you may not sin. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’
Here the ageing John addresses his readers with great tenderness, they are as it were, his little children (teknia - in this he is following Jesus - see John 13.33), those for whom he feels great responsibility. And he assures them that he does not write to them like this so that they may feel that they can freely sin, or feel that they cannot help but lose the battle against their known sins. He does it so that they may not sin. His longing is that they may be so aware of the God Who is pure light that they shy away from sin. That they seek earnestly to be sinless. His desire is that they will be a pure people walking in the light.
For while it is not possible to be totally sinless, it is possible for the Holy Spirit to empower men so that they have victory over all known sin, all sin of which they are aware. If they walk by the Spirit they will not fulfil the desire of the flesh (Galatians 5.16).
But he is aware that sin will, for many, break in again and again. And when it does, he assures them that they need not despair. For when they do sin they have One Who is their advocate with the Father, One who will plead their cause, One who will on their behalf claim that He has offered up Himself to be the propitiation for their sin. This is Jesus Christ, the righteous One. And His pleas will be heard because He is the Righteous One (Hebrews 7.26). He needs not to plead His own cause, for He is righteous. And He therefore comes on behalf of others and the basis of His plea is always righteous and thus well-pleasing to the Father.
And His plea is on the basis of His propitiating work (Romans 3.24-25). He knew that God as the Light had an aversion to sin, and He has removed through His own offering of Himself that which God held in aversion. That which stirred up God’s deserved wrath against man has been removed for those who are His through the blood of |His cross. He has thus made it possible for God to look with continual mercy on the forgiven sinner. For this was God’s plan in sending Jesus, and this is what He has accomplished.
‘And not for ours only, but also for the whole world.’ And there is no limit to this offer, for what Jesus has done is sufficient for the whole world if only they will receive it. If they would but come to Him the whole world might be saved. This salvation is open to all who will come.
This concept of ‘the world’ as a whole appears elsewhere in, for example, John 3.16. It does not strictly mean ‘every person in the whole world’. The thought is not individual but overall. The world is seen as a whole. But any one person from the whole world may respond and find that this propitiation is effective for him. It becomes individualised as men respond.
‘We have an advocate with the Father.’ The word for advocate is ‘parakleton’, the one called alongside to help. It is the same word used by Jesus of the Holy Spirit in John 14.16, 26; 16.7. There it referred to One Who would be with them for ever, Who would be alongside to assist them at all times, Who would reveal to them truth, and bring home to them all that Jesus had taught them and illuminate their hearts about it (John 14.26; 16.13). He would indeed bring home to them Jesus Himself (John 15.26). He would be God acting with them and in them. But here the thought is of an Advocate also acting for them, on their behalf, interceding for them (Hebrews 7.25), pleading the sinner's cause with the Father whenever it becomes necessary, as when Jesus prayed that Peter's faith would not fail (Luke 22.31-32). But it especially here refers to ensuring the continual application to them of the benefits of His Atoning Work, ensuring that they are cleansed when they come to God with their sins, ensuring that they are ever seen as righteous and clean in God’s sight.
‘Jesus Christ the righteous.’ Note the contrast between the many sinners and the One Who alone is righteous. Earlier He has been Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father (1.3, 7), divine in being and essence. Now He is the Righteous One, the One fitted to plead and sufficient to make satisfaction for man’s sins, the unique Righteous Man and the righteous God.
‘He is the propitiation for our sins.’ The word used for propitiation is the same word as that used in the Septuagint for the Mercy Seat which was placed on the Ark of the covenant of Yahweh in the Holiest of All in the sanctuary. It is the place where God meets man in mercy by virtue of the shedding of blood, the blood of a substitutionary and representative offering and sacrifice. And for us there is but one offering and sacrifice, made once for all (Hebrews 10.10). Christ Himself offered Himself up for us (Hebrews 10.12). And it is through Him that we find mercy at the throne of God, and it is He Whose offering of Himself acts as a propitiation for our sins, averting the antipathy of God towards sin.
In the ancient world the significance would undoubtedly be the ‘turning away of wrath’. But in Scripture the wrath of God, while prominent, refers to His aversion from sin and his determination to have done with it, rather than to personal anger which somehow needs to be mollified. It is not personal wrath but holy wrath, the necessary clash of moral light with sinful darkness. Thus the point of propitiation here is the removal of all that makes a man unacceptable to God.
How Then Can We Know That We Truly Know Christ? (2.3-6).
Many were claiming that they knew God, that they had special knowledge of Him, that through their own particular religious ordinances they were illuminated and made without sin, seeing sin, not as moral sin, but as some human blemish that could be removed by such ordinances. They were not too bothered about moral sin. But John now declares, as he has also already done, that they are deluded. Those who come to Christ and to the God Who is light will be aware of their own moral sinfulness and that it can only be dealt with through the blood of Jesus (1.6-10), and they will then reveal their true faith in Him by seeking cleansing through His blood and through the way that they live. They, and they alone, are Christians.
2.3-6 ‘And by this we know that we have known him, if we keep his commandments. He who says, I have known him, and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly has the love of God been perfected. Hereby we know that we are in him. He who says he abides in him ought himself also to walk even as he walked.’
The way that we can know that we have come to know Him Who is the Word of life, and Him Who is the light, is in that we keep His commandments. The word to ‘keep’ means not only to do them but also to hold them in our hearts and minds, continually meditating on them because we love to please Him. We treasure them because we want to be like Him. Thus we love His word. And as we obey it we can come to His light without a sense of guilt (the past has been atoned for) and without fear.
The ‘Him’ primarily in mind here must at first sight be Jesus Christ, for we are later told that we should walk as he walked (verse 6). But other references and the use of ekeinos in verse 6, suggesting a change of person, might suggest otherwise (see below). And anyway it is doubtful if John is making such a clear distinction between Father and Son. In 1.5 the fellowship is with the God Who is light. In 2.6 the abiding is in Jesus Christ. But John has emphasised from the beginning that our fellowship is ‘with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ’ (1.3), and the transition from talking about ‘Him’ as referring to God, to ‘Him’ as referring to Christ, is smooth and unobvious, wherever it occurs, because he sees it in effect as referring to the same thing. To walk with the God Who is light (1.6-7) is to walk with Jesus Christ (2.6).
Other references to commandment(s) in John’s writings can be found in John 13.34-35 and 15.12 where it is Jesus Who says that He is giving the disciples a new commandment, and in 14.15, 21 and 15.10 where Jesus speaks of ‘my commandments.’ That might support reference to Jesus here. Yet Jesus also speaks of a commandment He Himself has ‘received’ from the Father (John 10.18; 12.49-50; 14.31; and in the plural in 15:10). Furthermore, references to ‘His commandment(s)’ occur eight times in 1 John, in 2.3, 4; 3:22, 23, 24; 5.2, 3 (twice), along with one reference (4.21) to a commandment ‘from Him.’ In two of these instances (3.23 and 4.21) the context makes it clear that God the Father is being referred to. Thus for the sake of consistency we might argue that the remaining references to ‘His commandment(s)’ should also be seen as referring to God the Father, including the references here in 2.3-4. This is open to question, however, and the ambiguity suggests that it would probably not have been seen by John as important. The commandments of the Father and the commandments of Jesus were one.
‘By this we know that we have known him.’ The change from present to perfect indicates that the latter refers not just to the present but to the experience of the past as well. They know Him now because at some point in the past they came to know Him and that experience has continued. And this is evidenced by their ceasing to be lawless and keeping His commandments.
‘If we keep his commandments.’ The ‘if’ represents a theoretical position that is open to being true one way or the other. There are those who will hear his letter read who will not be keeping His commandments, thereby demonstrating that they have not known Him.
Then he adds that those who claim to have come to know Him, (through some mystical rite?), but do not keep His commandments in their hearts and through their lives, are liars. They are showing that they have not really come to know Him, for He is light and they are walking in the darkness of sin. They are demonstrating by their lawlessness that they do not know Him, that they do not have the truth within them. Note the more indirect ‘the one who says’ in contrast with the earlier ‘if we say’. John is distancing these from himself and his fellow Christians.
On the other hand those who do ‘keep’ His word, do hold it in their minds and hearts, and seek to fulfil it, truly have, and will have, the love of God perfected in them (compare 4.12). It is evidence that God’s love has entered their lives, and is being made perfect within them, so that His love will shine forth in them and from them and through them. God’s love will have done its perfect work in their hearts, and will continue to do so. This connection of God’s love and His people’s responding love through obeying His word will continue throughout the remainder of the letter. One main purpose of God’s love is to produce righteous men.
‘Hereby we know that we are in him.’ Thus the way in which we can know that we are in Him is by the fact that we keep His word in our hearts and live it out in our lives. We ‘keep His commandments’. Like James (and Paul), John has no time for those who consider that they can be Christians without living according to His word. It is not that living according to His word makes them Christians, it is to draw attention to the fact that, if they have become Christians through God’s free grace, the love of God will have truly entered their hearts, and will thus accomplish this within them, because His love will be perfected in them and will do its perfect work. God does not fail in His endeavours.
But if this makes anyone begin to feel doubt about their salvation the remedy is quick and easy. Come to the light and walk in it. Openly admit your sinfulness. And God is faithful. He will justly forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (1.9). The blood of Jesus Christ His Son will cleanse you from all sin (1.7). Then go on in your walk with Him, walking in the light.
‘He who says he abides in him ought himself also to walk even as he walked.’ This is John’s final conclusion. God is light, and Jesus Christ is the Righteous One, so that the one who abides in Him Who is light, dwelling in His presence and partaking of Him by faith, will necessarily walk as He walked Who is the Righteous One. It is a moral necessity, and no other possibility is mooted. As Jesus Himself had said, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6.24).
‘To walk even as he walked.’ This involves a study of His life and walk, and thus His teachings too, which would be possible through the reading out of the traditions concerning His life and teachings in the churches. It is to hold within us (to keep) such a view of Him, brought about by meditation on such teaching, that we light live as He lived and (as far as we can) be as He was. Abiding in Him involves such meditation and involves such walking.
‘He abides in Him.’ Abiding is a central theme of this letter. It occurs especially in John 15.4-7 where it has in mind ‘abiding’ in the vine as an illustration of abiding in Christ, thus indicating that abiding indicates the maintenance of permanent, unrestricted, and fully receptive contact. It denotes openness, receptiveness and response. And the idea is found continually in this letter. But the idea is even more widespread, for abiding signifies being continually present with the one in whom the abiding takes place. Thus the Holy Spirit will abide with and in His disciples for ever (John 14.16-17) ensuring the abiding with them of Jesus Himself (John 14.18). The idea is of permanent two-way contact.
So to ‘abide in Him’ is to maintain constant contact, to make constant response, to enjoy a constant loving relationship and to dwell constantly in His presence in obedient awareness of Him through His word, receiving life from Him as the branches of the vine receive life from the vine. And to do this and not to walk as He walked is seen as unthinkable.
When you ask someone ‘do you live there?’ you usually mean ‘do you abide there?’ It signifies permanent residence and presence. Those who are His demonstrate it by permanent residence in God and in Christ.
Note. The question is often asked, does all this refer to being a Christian or to being as it were in a special inner relationship with God? In our view the question is artificial. We must doubt whether John made such a distinction. We suspect that to him one who did not live like this, at least so some degree, was hardly seen as a Christian at all, only possibly as ‘a hopeful case’ which the future would reveal as genuine or otherwise. As emphasised elsewhere, the future would tell. That salvation is freely given in response to faith in Christ is indisputable. That salvation can be received and not be effective in daily life must be severely questioned. If a man is not changed by receiving Christ it must be questioned whether he has really become a new creation (1 Corinthians 5.17)?
Of course in many cases, especially in an environment where being a Christian is not seen as special, and where Christian standards have become the norm, the inward effect may take time to work out and be obvious. We start as babes and need to grow. But if God’s saving work is taking place within us then it will surely eventually force itself on our attention, and then on the attention of others, and then on the attention of the world. How can it be otherwise? And if it does not, we have to question whether it is happening at all. And no man who is not experiencing God’s saving work can truly call himself a Christian. What John wrote here was to all Christians. By their response they would be known (2.19). End of note.
The Old Commandment and the New Commandment (2.7-11).
Here John stresses the need to stand by what they have originally learned and experienced and by the Light that is already shining among them, and not to seek to those who claim to bring new light but only bring darkness, which is evidenced by their failure to love those who are true to Christ.
In interpreting these verses it is easy to jump ahead in the letter and then interpret this old commandment as the command to love one another. But in John 13.34 it is the ‘new’ commandment that is to love one another, (as in fact here in 2.8), while the ‘old’ commandment’ is the offer of eternal life (John 12.50 compare 14.31) which leads up to the new commandment, and encompasses the commandments as found constantly in the teaching of Jesus, which connect with this and are referred to constantly (14.15, 21, 23-24; 15.10, 14). It is those who hear His word and follow Him who receive eternal life (John 10.28). Thus while the new commandment is emphasised in John (as one commandment - John 13.34; 15.12, 17) His other words and commandments are also much emphasised. The disciples were to observe the whole width of His teaching, not just the commandment to love one another, however important that might be.
So we may see the principle commandment, ‘His commandment’, as the offer of life eternal (John 12.50), which is received by hearing His voice and following Him (John 10.28). Compare 2.25. This is further proved in 3.23 where God’s commandment is that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ (and thus receive eternal life). That is then followed, importantly but secondarily, by a second commandment that we need to love one another in accordance with His commandment. So there we have two commandments also (3.24a).
2.7 ‘Beloved, no new commandment do I write to you, but an old commandment which you (plural) had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard.’
Having described them as his ‘little children’ John now addresses them as his ‘beloved ones’. He exemplifies in himself the truth he is exhorting them to. And he wants it immediately clear that he is not bringing to them something new, but something that they had ‘from the beginning’, from when they first responded to Christ. Others may come with innovations but he will bring to them only the true word which was spoken by Jesus and which they received when they were first converted and which has been responsible for all their blessing.
And what is that old commandment? It is what God commanded. Jesus said, ‘for I did not speak from Myself, but the Father Who sent me, He has given me a commandment, what I should say and what I should speak, and I know that His commandment is life eternal. The things therefore which I speak, even as the Father has said to Me, thus I speak’ (John 12.49-50). So it is what He told them. It is ‘the word that they heard’. And what is that word? It is the commandment of eternal life (John 12.50). It is concerning the Word of Life (1.1). It is His word through Jesus.
It includes the wide scope of the teaching of Jesus seen as included in one commandment, the commandment of eternal life. It is that they must look to Christ as the light of the world, the light of life (John 8.12). It is the word of the cross, that Christ crucified is the power of God to salvation through His work on the cross and through His resurrection (1 Corinthians 1.18 compare 1.7; 2.2; John 6.52-59; Mark 10.45). It is that sin must be abhorred (1.7-10). It is that they must keep His word and His commandments, His teaching (John 14.10, 23 with 14.15, 21; 15.7 with 15.10) as those who enjoy eternal life. It may be seen as including that they must love one another, although that is the emphasis of a new commandment (John 13.34; 15.12, 17). Thus they are to look back to the old foundations that they first received in the traditions about Jesus. Compare here 3.10 where doing righteousness (which includes loving God and one’s neighbour) and loving one’s brother are two major aspects of the Christian life.
2.8-11 ‘Again, a new commandment I do write to you, which thing is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shines. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in the darkness even until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.’
But he will now also bring them the new commandment. This is revealed in the new commandment given by Jesus (John 13.34) that they love one another as He has loved them. It is something which therefore, unlike the false teaching they are being offered, is true both in Christ and in them, for He loves them, and they are to love one another (John 13.34). And it comes with the recognition that the true Light is already shining (compare Matthew 4.16; John 1.4-5, 9; 3.19; 8.12; 12.46), and the darkness is passing away. Thus all who are true and who recognise that Light will walk in it and will love their brothers, and will not stumble, nor cause others to stumble, and they will be loved by Him. There will be love and unity among those who walk in His light.
In order to grasp the full meaning of these verses we must read them in the light of Jesus’ teaching in John’s Gospel concerning himself as the Light in contrast with other false light which is only darkness. There He declared Himself to be the light of the world (8.12; 9.5) and warned that any other light was darkness (compare Matthew 6.23). Only those who followed Him would not walk in darkness (John 12.35). And He warned that those who did not believe on Him as the Light and become sons of Light, would, as here, find themselves walking in darkness and not know where they were going (verse 11; John 12.35-36).
So this is John’s challenge to those who are seeking to lead the churches astray. It would seem possible that they were referring to a light that they offered, a light that could come to men through their teaching, a light coming in the darkness, a new light, a better light, which men must follow them to receive, possibly a light that they claimed was bringing, a new slant, a new truth, a new teaching, a new ‘knowledge’ (gnosis?). It was a light that was little concerned with sin, yes, even denied that it was sin. His reply is that that is not so. There is no new light. The true Light has already come. It is already shining, and the darkness is already on its way out, it is ‘passing away’. Nothing more is needed. No new light is required. Any new light can only lead men astray. All is found in Christ Who is already as a Light among them dispelling the darkness and bringing men into His light. And it is a light that is very much concerned with sin. Thus they must stay with the old truths that they have been taught.
It would also appear that these new teachers had by their teaching brought dissension and disagreement and had aroused hatred in some wayward members of the church who had turned against those who held and proclaimed the old truths, possibly accusing them of keeping this new light from them. Thus he warns that the test of the true light being among them is that they love their brothers who preach Christ truly, who proclaim the light of the world. Not to love them is proof that they have fallen away from the truth.
‘Again, a new commandment I do write to you.’ This is a warning that they take heed to themselves lest the light that is in them be darkness, that they beware of being led astray. The new commandment is that they ensure that they show love to those brothers who are responsible for the churches, who preach Christ truly, thus revealing that they are abiding in the light. For to hate those who truly preach Christ is to love darkness.
‘Which thing is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shines.’ This new commandment he is writing is true in Christ, and true in His people, because they enjoy shared love, Christ’s love for them and their love for one another, and this because darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining. He is calling on them to recognise and stand by the truth, that the true Light is already among them and there is no place for anything new. Let them look to the One about Whom they learned from the beginning, and Who is at this time working among them, already bringing light and dispelling darkness. If they are ‘in Him’ they will do so, for in Him this is true. And if they are true to Him it will be true in them too.
‘The darkness is passing away.’ Compare 2.17 where the world is passing away. Thus the thought is not just that the darkness is going, but that it is transitory and doomed. This darkness is the darkness of sin (1.5-10), of the power of darkness (5.19 with Colossians 1.13), of false teaching (verse 11).
‘He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in the darkness even until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in him. (He leads no one astray). But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.’ The position of these people is tested by the new commandment which passes its verdict on them. They have come with new light, saying that they are in the light, and yet they do not love the brothers who are faithful to the Gospel and abiding in the Light that is already shining. Thus they are in fact revealing that they are in darkness, as is proved by the fact that they are rejecting the true Light. But those who love the faithful preachers of the Gospel, those who hold to the truth, abide in the Light. They cause none to stumble. They lead none astray.
But those who hate the true brethren prove themselves to be in darkness, and walk in darkness, and do not know where they are going (John 12.35), because their eyes have been blinded by darkness. So he has very much in mind here the words of Jesus in His declaration that He is the light of the world (John 8.12; 9.5), and His warning that when they no longer have Him as their light men will walk in darkness and not know where they are going (John 12.35). He warns that this is what is happening here. The true Light is being rejected for the false, and many are going into darkness. And it is proved by their hatred, contrary to Jesus’ commandment, of those who proclaim the true Light. They do not love the truth.
They Know the Father and the Eternal Word and Must Beware of Loving The World (2.12-17).
Having exhorted them of the need to remain true to Him and to the Word Who ‘is’ from the beginning, and to love those who are true to Christ, he now rejoices in the fact that they are of those who have been forgiven and know both Father and Son. This contrasts with the false teachers who denied the need for forgiveness and sought to introduce lesser lights and to diminish the Son. (Heresy regularly seeks to diminish the importance of sin and the status of the Son, blurring the clear Biblical distinctions). Then he warns his readers of the danger of loving ‘the world’. This refers not to the world of men (as in John 3.16) but to the attractions and allurements and ways of the world which can only lead them away from God and thus lead them astray. The church, which was now established, faced enemies both within and without. He has dealt with the question of those within (and will again do so later) but now he turns his thoughts on the enemies without.
There is a problem here as to how we are to connect the opening verses. Are we to take 2.12 as introductory, seeing it then as expanded in verse 13a dividing the ‘little children’ into fathers and young men, (compare ‘young men -- old men’ in Joel 2.28-29), followed again by a similar pattern in the second series, thus giving three ‘I write’ and three ‘I have written’ phrases which are parallel? Or are we to see a reference to babes in Christ either in terms of teknia and paidia, (or of paidia alone with teknia referring to all), with separate references to fathers and young men, so that in mind are babes, fathers and young men? For gaining the sense it is not really important. In the commentary we work on the basis of the first interpretation due to the otherwise strange order of ‘babes, fathers and young men’. On the other hand it may be that the young men are deliberately placed last because they are the most likely to be affected by the attractions of the world which are then spoken of.
2.12 ‘I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake (by means of his name).’
John’s tender concern continues to come out. Having spoken of ‘teknia’ (2.1) and ‘beloved ones’ (2.7), he here again speaks to them all as ‘teknia’ (compare John 13.33). With the privilege of an old man and an Apostle he is concerned lest in their comparative tenderness of years and experience in Christ these fathers and young men be led astray. So he first reminds them again that they are forgiven sinners because of Jesus Christ’s work on their behalf (1.7; 2.1-2). It is for His sake and through what He is (through His name) that they have been forgiven. Thus they enjoy continual forgiveness as they walk with Him (1.7, 9). It is the necessary basis of all Christian life that we have been forgiven as chapter 1 has emphasised. This in contrast with those who claim to have no sin. All who are true acknowledge their own moral failure and that they are forgiven ones.
Seeing this as introductory this blessing of being forgiven is thus applied to all, to both the elder and the younger men. If, however, the reference is only to those who are babes in Christ it is a reminder that they have received the first initial blessing of forgiveness on which they must go on to build their Christian lives. But of course in the end all are ‘forgiven ones’.
2.13a ‘I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.’
To ‘the fathers’, the older men, he feels that he need do no more than remind them that they ‘know Him Who is from the beginning’. This latter probably refers back to 1.1. They seek no new ‘knowledge’ because their knowledge is of One Who pre-existed time itself and has come as the Word of life among them. They are content and settled in Him Who is the true light shining among them. They need to know nothing more.
To the young men he gives the reminder that they have overcome the Evil One (or ‘evil’). They are strong in Christ and have learned to resist temptation, being delivered from the Evil One (Matthew 6.13). This last is true both of their status as having bee transferred from the power of darkness to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1.13; Ephesians 2.2) and of their daily victorious living as they walk in the light. They have learned to stand firm (Ephesians 6.14) and to resist the Devil (James 4.7), and to flee from youthful desires (2 Timothy 2.22). Let them continue to do so. These men are at the forefront of the battle.
The idea of being an overcomer is constant in John’s writings (see 4.4; 5.4-5). All who are in Christ are ‘overcomers’, (‘whoever is begotten of God overcomes the world’ - 5.4) although at differing stages, and this is because the One Who has overcome the world (John 16.33) dwells within them and lives through them. They overcome both the powers of evil (here and 4.4) and the world (5.4-5), although here both go together, while the whole world lies in the Evil One (5.19). This overcoming is especially emphasised in Revelation where the battle is revealed at its fiercest (2.7, 11, 17, 26; 3.5, 12, 21; 5.5; 12.11; 15.2; 21.7). Paul also declares that we ‘are more than conquerors through Him that loved us’ (Romans 8.37). Victory is secure in Christ.
Thus all true Christians are overcomers, for the Scripture makes plain that all Christians will be worked on by God (Philippians 2.13) Who will confirm them to the end (1 Corinthians 1.8-9) so that they will be led, sometimes very slowly, through to victory.
2.13b-14 I have written to you, little children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.’
The change from present tense to aorist is probably stylistic, as he partially repeats what he has already said, although possibly emphasising more the permanence of their knowing. Once again he addresses them all first, as ‘little children’ (paidia - compare John 21.5), and this time reminds them that they know the Father. In the light of chapter 1 the point is that being forgiven and knowing the Father go hand in hand. It is when we come to know the One Who is light and come to His light that we seek forgiveness, and then we come into a fuller knowledge of Him Who is light. The connection of this with the following ‘know Him Who is from the beginning’ then brings together Father and Son signifying that knowing the One involves knowing the Other. They know both the Father and the Word of life, Who are both of eternity. Or the thought may be of the Father as the One Who watches over them from Heaven as His little children (5.45) so that they need not live anxiously (Matthew 6.8-9, 25-34). They are forgiven and the Father watches over them in all their needs (this especially if the little ones are to be seen as a distinct group). But the emphasis is certainly on the fact that they know what it is important to know, they know the Father and the Son and the light and the Word of life.
Because they know the Father directly (Who is the Father of every form of light - James 1.17) they have no need of spurious ‘knowledge’ or intermediary ‘lights’. They are in direct contact with Him Who is the source of all things, the pure light, without shadow or lack.
Then in readiness for his coming exhortation he again refers to the fathers and young men. To the fathers he repeats what he has already said. It is all that needs to be said and emphasises that He Who is the light of the world ‘is’ from the beginning, and that they know Him as such. They know Him Who ‘is’ from the beginning. This is the true knowledge. To the young men he brings the reminder of the means by which they have overcome the Evil One. It is by having the word of God (or ‘the Word of God’) abiding in them. For the way to overcome the Evil One is by use of the Scriptures as a weapon of defence and attack (Ephesians 6.10-17) as Jesus did during His temptations (Matthew 4.1-11), and by the indwelling of Him Who is the Word of life Who came from God (1.1; Galatians 2.20; Ephesians 3.17).
Note the connection with the opening verses of the letter. They know the Father (1.2, 3), they know Him Who is from the beginning (1.1), they know the Word of God (1.1,2). Thus does he express his confidence in them and for them, and turn their eyes on what truly matters. This is necessary prior to giving them a warning concerning the world, which he later tells us lies in the Evil One, and directing them to continue to do the will of God. Right doctrine is always at the root of right behaviour.
2.15-17 ‘Do not love the world, nor the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the vain glory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passes away, and its desire, but he who does the will of God abides for ever.’
This is possibly to be seen as continuing the address to the young men, although also applying to all. It is they who will be most vulnerable to it. It is not a direction not to love mankind, for God’s general benevolence was towards mankind (John 3.16) and the need to love one’s neighbour was a well established principle (Mark 12.30-33; Romans 13.8-10). Rather the world that is in mind is that which lies in the Evil One (5.19), that which he rules and controls (Matthew 4.8-9) and deceives. These young men have overcome the Evil One. And it is by means of the activities of the world without God that he will try to win them back. Therefore they must beware.
The ‘world’ that is in mind is the world and its ways, its aims, its ambitions, its desires and its pleasures. That is what they are to beware of. It is not to avoid the world totally, for they must live in it, but to beware of loving it, of being caught up in it and its ways. The Christian is to be in the world but not of the world, salt which counters the world’s putrefaction, light which serves to counter the world’s darkness.
So having concentrated on what they are to set their hearts on, the knowing of the Father, the knowing of the One ‘Who is from the beginning, the knowing of the Word of God, the receiving of forgiveness with all its implications of walking in the light, John now turns their thoughts to what they should not seek to ‘know’, the world and its ways. Indeed love for the world in this sense would demonstrate that they neither loved the Father, nor were filled with the Father’s love, for it is contrary to all God’s requirements.
‘The love of the Father is not in him.’ The Father’s love is directed at His children (3.1) and enters into them, and the result is that they love what He loves. And what the world loves is not what He loves. The world is going in a different direction. The Father loves righteousness, truth, purity, selflessness, consideration for others, compassion. This is the opposite of what the world loves. And thus the one who loves the world reveals by that fact that the Father’s love is not in him. We cannot love God and mammon,
And why is this? Because what the world rejoices in and craves is the exact opposite to what is of the Father. It craves power, control, position, satisfaction of its desires, illicit sex, greed, gluttony, wealth and more wealth, continuing self-satisfaction, earthly glory, none of which are of the Father, and it grows more and more careless as to how it obtains them. For its aims are totally selfish, and, while even sometimes seeming noble, regardless of God. There is little in them of true self-giving. It controls and manipulates. It revels while others starve. It is the world which is God-dismissing, which takes little notice of God’s will, indeed scoffs at it.
The meaning of the loving of the world is defined in three ways, the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the vain glory of life. The first signifies the misuse of wine, wealth, women and song and other human pleasures, where human desires have become prominent and require satisfaction (in John ‘flesh’ signifies being human rather than being particularly sinful - John 1.12, 14; 3.6), the second the glittering prizes of wealth and honour and fame and position, where the eye is fixed on earthly things and earthly goals, and the third the desire to control and govern in their own name, to be someone, and yet all for their own purposes. Thus they make gods of pleasure, prestige and power. Such attitudes are the direct opposite of all that God is. They symbolise the direct rejection of God’s requirements and law, for the point is that they control men’s decisions and direct men’s lives and lead them into every kind of wickedness, and every form of manipulation, all of which is contrary to God’s commandments. The thought of loving God and their neighbour as themselves is the last thing that they have in mind.
But, warns John, these things are not only unsatisfying, they are passing. The world and its desires, as will darkness (verse 8), will inevitably pass away, sometimes more quickly than we anticipate. They are temporary and not lasting. In contrast those who know God and walk with Him achieve what is permanent. They seek what God wills. They use their wealth for good and for God so as to gain treasure in Heaven and not status on earth (Luke 16.9). They look not at the things which are seen but at the things which are unseen (2 Corinthians 4.18). They take ‘pride’ in pleasing God. And he who thus seeks and does the will of God will continue for ever. And the logical contrast is that those who love and follow ‘the world’ will not live for ever. By their ways they forfeit eternal life.
‘He who does the will of God abides for ever.’ In John’s Gospel it is Jesus who repeatedly states that He has come to do the will of the Father who sent Him (John 4.34; 5.30; 6.38). This involved considering heavenly aims and not earthly aims, and yet doing so in a way that was very much a part of this earth, and resulted in Jesus’ obedience to the will of God in fulfilling His moral demands and even to the point of death. In the same way in 1 John the author stresses obedience to the will of God by His people, and this by walking and conducting their lives even as He walked (2.6). Thus while their eyes are to be fixed on heavenly things and not earthly things, and they are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20) and are to seek to further Heaven’s interests and not to be passionately taken up with their own interests in the world, they are to do so as people living in the world. There is no though of withdrawing from the world or losing touch with the world. The will of God involves right moral behaviour in the world.
‘Abides for ever.’ In John 8.35 Jesus affirmed that the ‘son’ remains in the household forever, and in 12.34 declared that the Messiah will remain forever. Thus those who dwell in God’s household and who follow the Messiah will also remain forever. Compare John 8.51, “I tell you the solemn truth, if anyone obeys my teaching, he will never see death.” Thus the one who is doing the will of God has undying life, and by his obedience which reveals his true faith may be assured that he will live forever (5.13).
The three fold description of the ways of the world, the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the vainglory of life compare interestingly with the temptation in the Garden of Eden. ‘The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise (as one of the elohim).’ Again the contrast was with the will of God. The choice was obedience to God or sampling that which while attractive was forbidden because of its effects. The same parallel comes in the temptations of Jesus. The desire for bread by a hungry man, the seeing of all the kingdoms of the world and their glory in a moment of time, and finally the vainglorious hurling of Himself from the Temple to demonstrate that He was the favoured of God. And again the contrast was with the will of God. Where Man first failed, Jesus triumphed, and John now calls on His people to triumph in the same way.
Warning Against False Religion and False Teachers (2.18-29).
Having warned against the world which is under the control of the Evil One and will stultify their faith, John now warns against false teachings which will destroy their faith. He warns against that which sets itself up as an alternative to Christ, as an antichrist. For an antichrist (‘over against Christ’) is not necessarily someone who is antagonistic to Christ but rather someone who usurps Christ’s place, setting himself up instead of Christ. He may well honour Christ as a prophetic man, but he seeks to put himself in His place as the one to whom men should look.
2.18-19 ‘Little children, it is the last hour, and as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now have there arisen many antichrists, by which we know that it is the last hour. 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 they might be made openly displayed that they are all not of us.’
Now John addresses his readers as ‘paidia’ as in verse 13. In verse 28 he will return to teknia as in verses 1 and 12. The aim is probably rather to avoid weary repetition than for any great doctrinal purpose. They are his beloved children in the faith.
‘It is the last hour.’ The idea of the ‘hour’ as a crucial time is regular in John (John 2.4; 7.30; 8.20; 12.23; 12.27; 13.1; 17.1; also Revelation 17.12). The whole ministry of Jesus had led up to the final hour (13.1) which began with the Last Supper and led on through the cross (12.23, 27) to His final glorification (17.1). So Jesus had had His hour, and now the church must face theirs.
To John the final hour had now come in which the final purposes of God would be completed. No one knew at this time how long the ‘last hour’ would last, although both Peter and John saw it as possibly lasting a long time, ‘a thousand years’ (2 Peter 3.8-9; Revelation 20.4). It was in God’s hands, and to God time was insignificant. But by all it was recognised that the coming of Jesus and His death, resurrection and exaltation, had ushered in the last times, the final stage of God’s purposes. It was ‘the last days’ (Acts 2.17), ‘the end of the days’ (Hebrews 1.2), ‘the end of the times’ (1 Peter 1.20), ‘the ends of the ages’ (1 Corinthians 10.11), so that ‘the end of all things is at hand’ (1 Peter 4.7).
‘And as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now have there arisen many antichrists, by which we know that it is the last hour.’ John here wrote after Peter and Paul, and probably after the Book of Revelation. Both Paul (2 Thessalonians 2.8-10) and the Book of Revelation (17.8, 11-13; 19.19-20) spoke of the final arising of a great Anti-god, setting himself up over against God to be worshipped. And Peter stressed the arising of false teachers who would face dreadful judgment (2 Peter 2). So John now either saw the antichrist as having come or as imminently coming and preceded by his forerunners. There are, he said, many antichrists, any of which might turn out to be the final antichrist, and seemed satisfied that this mainly fulfilled the prophecy of antichrists made by Jesus (Matthew 24.5, 24) and possibly even those made by himself in Revelation, although both he and Paul spoke of one great antichrist (or equivalent) who would sum up them all (2 Thessalonians 2.8-10; Revelation 17.8, 11-13; 19.19-20), and was prefigured by the Roman emperors (Revelation 13).
These antichrists were not on the whole great martial figures, but false teachers whose message to some extent aped and paralleled the Gospel, some even pointing to Jesus, but not as both true God and true man. However their sometimes rapid success may well have been seen as about to introduce the reign of Antichrist. The essence of the antichrist was deception and denial of Jesus as the Christ and thus of Father and Son (verses 22-23; 2 John 1.7). But there had of course also been, and would be, emperors of Rome who had and would claim deity, to be gods and sons of gods, or were fervently acclaimed as such by many of the people, especially far from Rome where their divinity was treated seriously, and who when faced with the issue by implication denied that Jesus was the Christ. They too were antichrist.
But here, unlike in Revelation, his concentration is more on the false teachers who abounded and were hindering the churches’ message and establishing their rival widespread groups of adherents, and many flocked to them so that it seemed sometimes as though they would almost swamp the church of Christ. They were constant reminders that the end was imminent and could come at any time, although when they did not know.
‘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 they might be made openly displayed that they are all not of us.’ These particular false teachers were men who had become attached to the Christian church, had seemed part of it, but had then left it and, taking those whom they had influenced with them, established ‘churches’ of their own, with their own particular extravagant doctrines which had possibly some resemblance to Christian teaching but without its practicality and down to earth reality, and essentially denied that the man Jesus was truly ‘the Christ’, God’s unique anointed One and only Son. Some possibly taught the reception of an esoteric ‘knowledge’ (gnosis) or a contact with varying succession of lights which lifted men beyond the ordinary, denying the true humanity and full Godhood of Jesus, and many were not concerned with morality. Such ideas would certainly be common later.
But what they were was revealed by the fact that they departed from a church in which at that time the basic doctrine had remained pure, because of the presence of apostolic men. They went out from them because they could not stomach basic Christian doctrine. It was too down to earth, too basic, too tied to earthly things. It was not exciting enough.
They wanted as it were to stretch their wings and introduce fantasy (as the so-called later ‘Gospels’ demonstrate). They did not want someone from God Who as God became man and exemplified and taught the resurrection of the body, and literally died, and called on men to repent of sin and be cleansed, and made strong ethical demands. They did not want to be limited to the life and teachings of a Jew Who had lived in Palestine and had physically been put to death. They wanted to rise above it all into a fantasy world of light, to free their souls with freedom to do as they wanted.
This is of course very much a generalisation, for there would be many forms of differing views as they mingled Christian ideas with those of other religions and philosophies, especially the mystery religions that abounded and strongly influenced men’s thoughts. But one thing was common to most. They departed from the church, sometimes by choice, and sometimes because they were expelled for false ideas by apostolic men who firmly defended certain basic truths. And thus they proved that they were not of the truth.
John has clear views about them. They “are of the world” (4.5a), they “have gone out into the world” (4.1), they “speak from the world’s perspective” (4.5b), and “the world listens to them” (4.5c). They offer what the world wants, that which titillates the flesh or the mind. For their teaching does not bring men to obey God and keep His commandments, and live lives of unselfishness and goodness, but stresses either asceticism or laxity, both in order to free them from their fleshly bodies, and without too much emphasis on sin and the need to obey God’s laws as human beings in the flesh. Walking in the true light and living for God among men in accordance with His moral demands, and admitting their sinfulness and seeking forgiveness through the blood of the cross, did not appeal to them.
2.20 ‘And you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all the things (or ‘you all know’).’
Unlike these men, the orthodox church leaders, who followed and looked to the apostolic teaching, retained the basic truths, and all their true followers did so too. And that was because they had ‘an anointing from the Holy One’. This meant that they ‘know all things’. This last phrase, if correct (see below), echoes John 14.26 and suggests that here John is speaking of the Holy Spirit as having been given to them and as illuminating them and keeping them in the truth. The Holy Spirit was the seal that a man was a Christian (Ephesians 1.13; 4.30), and the revealer of truth (1 Corinthians 2.10-16). We shall now consider the matter in more detail.
The antichrists, by virtue of their title, were in some way anointed ones, for christos means anointed. Thus John reminds the true people of God that they too are anointed ones, and are anointed with One Who is true.
‘You have an anointing from the Holy One.’ The word for ‘anointing’ appears only three times in the New Testament, here and twice in 2.27. It signifies ‘that with which someone is anointed’. It initially had within it in the Old Testament the idea of the application of oil for the purpose of setting a man aside in God’s service. The question therefore here is whether it refers to such a literal ‘means of anointing’ (that is, the oil or ointment itself which is applied to someone), or an anointing with the ‘anointing’, that is, with the Holy Spirit, where the Holy Spirit replaces the oil.
The Old Testament background to the term includes the use of anointing oil for purposes of consecration, but that that anointing could be connected with the coming of the Holy Spirit on a man is demonstrated in 1 Samuel 16.13. There Samuel anointed David, and the Spirit of Yahweh came on him with power. Even more significantly, in Isaiah 61.1 the coming of the Spirit on the Servant of Yahweh was paralleled with his having been ‘anointed’ in order to proclaim the good news and exercise delivering power. The Spirit seems now to have become the means of anointing, or at least very closely associated with it.
This figurative use is clearly demonstrated in the New Testament. In Acts 10.38 Peter says that God ‘anointed Him (Jesus) with the Holy Spirit’, while in Acts 4.27 the whole group speak of ‘your Servant Jesus Whom You anointed’, a probable reference back to Isaiah 61.1 (compare Luke 4.18), and probably having in mind His experience of the Holy Spirit at His baptism (emphasised in all four Gospels - Matthew 3.16-17; Mark 1.10-11; Luke 3.22; John 1.32-33). This word in Acts 4.27 was followed by the whole group being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’. On the basis of these references it seems highly probable that the use of the word ‘anointing’ here refers not to a literal anointing with oil (as in James 5.14) but to an anointing with the Holy Spirit in line with what we have seen above.
This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that 2.27 speaks of ‘the anointing which you received of Him -- as His anointing teaches you concerning all things and is true and is no lie’. Note the emphasis on the fact that the anointing is ‘received’, that it teaches ‘concerning all things’, and that it is ‘true’, the very antithesis to the lie. This reflects the language in John 14.17; 15.26 (‘the Spirit of truth’); John 14.26 (‘will teach you all things’); John 16.13 (‘will guide you into all truth’); John 7.39 (‘this spoke He of the Spirit which those who believed on Him were to receive’) and John 20.22 (‘receive Holy Spirit’). Compare also Acts 2.33, 38; 1 Corinthians 1.22-23. This is further confirmed by the fact that in 5.7 it is the Spirit Who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth
Some have suggested that the anointing was to be seen as signifying the word, but it is noteworthy that John in fact did not refer to the ‘word’ spoken at Jesus’ baptism (1.32-33), his concentration being on reception of the Holy Spirit, and anointing is never actually spoken of as ‘of the word’. But certainly the Holy Spirit was regularly received as a result of the preaching of the word (e.g. Acts 10.44), and Jesus’ reception of the Spirit was accompanied by God’s word from Heaven in the other Gospels. And here in verse 24 in context there is the thought of the word which they first heard. We may therefore see the anointing as the Spirit coming through the word. For none would doubt that that word came through the Spirit, so that we may see Spirit and word as going together. It was the Spirit revealing God through the word that was the basis of men’s reception of salvation, and was the evidence that they were Christians (Romans 8.9) and the word of the cross was the power of God to salvation (1 Corinthians 1.18). When the Spirit had anointed them it had been through their reception of the word.
Thus what John is saying here is that those who are true believers have an anointing with the Holy Spirit which has confirmed in them the truth through His word so that they have not been led astray. Those who are His have received the Spirit and the word. It should be noted that John says of those who have departed that they ‘were not of us’. Thus while they may well have been in membership of the church he did not see them as ever having been genuine Christians, the implication being that they had not been anointed in the Spirit through the word while the true believers had. The further implication is that those who have been so anointed will be kept in the truth.
‘From the Holy One.’ Of Whom was John speaking when he spoke of ‘the Holy One’? It is unlikely to signify the Holy Spirit because He is never described elsewhere as the Holy One, and had he meant the Holy Spirit he would surely have said so. Indeed the use of the title strongly suggests that it is so used precisely because the anointing is with the ‘Holy’ Spirit.
Thus we are faced with two alternatives. The reference may be to God, or to Jesus. A reference to God has been suggested here because: (1) in the Old Testament there are references to God as “the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 1.4 and often in Isaiah; Psalm 71.22). (2) There is at least one clear reference in the LXX which uses this very phrase (Habakkuk 3.3). (3) In 1 John 3.24 and 4.13 it is God who gives the Holy Spirit to believers. (4) In the two passages from the Gospel of John which are most parallel to 2.20, 27 (John 14.16-17, 26) it is the Father who sends the Holy Spirit.
But it can be argued most strongly that a reference to Jesus Christ is most probable here for the following reasons. Firstly that Jesus is called ‘the Holy One of God’ in Mark 1.24; Luke 4.34, and John 6:69, and is called ‘the Holy One’ exactly as here in both Acts 3.14 and Revelation 3.7. Thus Jesus was well known as ‘the Holy One’, and is so depicted by John. Secondly because in John 15.26 and 16.7 it is Jesus Who is depicted as sending the Holy Spirit. Thirdly because in Acts 2.33 it is Jesus Who is again portrayed as pouring out the Holy Spirit, and finally because 2.27 speaks of ‘the anointing which you received from Him’ where ‘Him’ seems to refer to Jesus, for the promise of eternal life in verse 25 was more directly given by Jesus (John 5.24; 10.28) (although as often in the letter the reference is not absolutely certain. God’s commandment was eternal life - John 12.50). In verse 28 the reference is definitely to Jesus.
The main point, however, is to stress that the anointing came from the ‘Holy One’, the unique One, the One set apart from and above all others in His distinctive holiness. In the end both Father and Son were the Holy One.
‘You know all things.’ There is a textual problem here in that the manuscripts are divided between ‘you know all things’ (panta) and ‘you all (pantes) know’. Pantes is read by Aleph B sa etc. On the other hand A C vg etc. have the accusative panta. The manuscript evidence may therefore be seen as favouring pantes, but not conclusively. Comparison with verse 27 favours panta. But it could be argued that verse 27 and John 14.26; 16.30 have influenced the change here.
If we read panta the idea is that the Spirit leads them to know all things as in verse 27. If we read pantes it is that all who have received the anointing will know the truth. Both are in line with John’s thinking.
2.21-23 ‘I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because (or ‘that’) no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, even he who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son, the same does not have the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.’
John immediately assures them that he has not so written because he considers them ignorant of the truth, but because he is well aware that they do know the truth because of the anointing that is in them. He is confident that they can therefore discern lies, that is, false teachings, and recognise their falsehood, not giving place to them for an instant.
He then depicts as liars (men who proclaim the lie - compare 2 Thessalonians 2.9-11; 1 Timothy 4.2; Romans 1.25) those who deny that the man Jesus is the Christ, and indicates that by this that he means those who deny the true Sonship of the Son.
Messiahship (Christhood) had by now among Christians gone far beyond an earthly figure. Jesus had been physically raised and established in Heaven as both ‘Lord and Christ’, the highest possible accolade (Acts 2.36). He had been revealed as God’s only Son (John 1.14, 18; 3.16-18 compare Acts 4.27), set at God’s right hand, the visible expression of the authority of the invisible God. His uniqueness and essential relationship with the Father was now certain. Thus to deny that Jesus was the Christ indicated denying His true Sonship, and by this denying the Father. God as Father was now directly so linked to His relationship to the Son that there could be no acceptance of the Father without acceptance of the Son. Their inter-relationship was now seen as such that it was both or none. The connection of Father and Son in the way John does here confirms that he sees both as of the same essence. To deny One is to deny the Other.
There is no greater lie than to deny the Christhood and Sonship of Jesus. It strikes at the very root of existence, for He is the basis for our existence and for our hope. It is a lie against all that is.
For the confessing and denying of Jesus compare Matthew 10.32; Luke 12.8; see also John 12.42, but there the thought was of Him being confessed as One sent from God, here it refers to acknowledging His true Sonship. To confess is to declare belief in and to declare loyalty to, to deny is to reject belief in and to refuse loyalty.
‘Whoever denies the Son, the same does not have the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.’ The point here is that not to recognise the Son means that such a person does not ‘have the Father’, that is does not know Him or experience Him or have Him dwelling within (John 14.23), for if he did he would necessarily fully acknowledge the Son, the title indicating that He was of the same being and essence, because of the Father’s witness to Him within. For to the one who is truly a Christian both Son and Father have come to dwell within (John 14.23 compare 2 Corinthians 6.16)
2.24 ‘As for you, let that abide (remain) in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abide (remain) in you, you also will abide in the Son, and in the Father.’
The way of knowing the truth is to allow to continue to remain in them what they first heard when they responded to Christ for salvation. Then the Holy Spirit came to them and applied the word in their hearts, and if they keep hold of that there will be no danger that they cease to remain in the Father and the Son. This latter idea may mean doctrinally or in spiritual experience. In fact the two go together. As earlier, the secret is to go back to their foundations (2.7).
2.25 ‘And this is the promise which he promised us, even the life eternal.’
It is worth making sure that they do so, for ‘He’ has promised eternal life to those who truly know Him. Eternal life consists in knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ Whom He had sent (John 17.3). It is therefore bound up in both the only true God and in Jesus Christ as the ambassador of the only true God. This does not necessarily separate the only true God and Jesus Christ. Just as an ambassador may be sent by a government of which he is a part, as its representative, so that he is both an essential part of the government and its representative, so Jesus was sent by the only true God, the Godhead of which He is a part, as the representative of the Godhead. (Compare 5.20)
But Who is it Who has promised us eternal life? The nearest antecedent is the Father. But the emphasis in the context is on the Son. The ambiguity may be deliberate. In John 5.24 eternal life was God’s gift to those who heard Jesus’ words, which includes responding to them, which meant those who believed Him that sent Him. Thus they were to respond to both the Son and the Father. Such people passed immediately from death to life, and were guaranteed their part in the resurrection (John 5.29). Indeed Jesus Himself gives eternal life to those who hear His voice and follow Him. They are thus revealed as known by Him and given to Him by the Father (John 10.28-29). So the source of eternal life is both Father and Son. And that eternal life is a present reality. As John tells us in 5.13, we may know that we have (not ‘will have) eternal life.
Eternal life is a theme of the letter. It came in the One Who was heard, seen and handled, the Word of life (1.1-3), and consisted of coming to know God as light and entering into fellowship with Him (1.5-6), and being right with Him (2.1-2) through Jesus Christ. No one who hates his brother has eternal life (3.15) because he thereby reveals that he is in darkness, rejects the true witness to God, and is without the anointing (2.9-10, 19-20) It is given by the Father, and is bound up in His Son (5.11) so that he who has the Son has life, while he who does not have the Son does not have life (5.12). It is also given by the Son (John 10.28). It consists of a true spiritual knowledge of God in Christ and in our abiding in Him, enjoying His life within us.
Thus by believing fully in the Son of God we can know that we have eternal life. It is finally defined in 5.20, which expands on John 17.3, as ‘we know that the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him Who is true, and we are in Him Who is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.’ This is basically declaring that it comes through knowing that the Son of God has come, receiving understanding from Him, thus knowing and being in full relationship with Him Who is true (the Father), by which we are in Him and His Son Jesus Christ, Who are together the true God and bestowers of eternal life.
Elsewhere eternal life is a gift men seek (Mark 10.17; Luke 10.25; 18.18; John 5.39) and is for those who follow Him (Mark 10.30). It is the opposite of perishing (John 3.15), and comes through participation in His sacrifice of Himself (John 6.54). In Paul, who looks to the grand consummation and complete fulfilment of it, it is always future (Romans 2.7; 5.21; 6.3; 1 Timothy 6.12, 19; Titus 1.2; 3.7). But John sees the present experience as well as the future glory.
2.26 ‘These things have I written to you concerning those who would lead you astray.’
‘These things’ presumably refers to the whole of the letter as in 1.4. It is a warning against those who would lead them astray, the ‘deceivers’.
2.27 ‘And as for you, the anointing which you received of him abides in you, and you need not that any one teach you, but as his anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is no lie, and even as it taught you, you abide in him.’
John is confident that they will not be led astray because ‘the anointing they have received’ abides in them and teaches them concerning all things. Again we can refer to John 14.26; 16.13. The Spirit of truth (the anointing) takes of the word and, abiding within them, teaches them the truth, so that they abide in ‘Him’. Thus they need no other teachers from outside. Those appointed to watch over them and minister by the Spirit in the assembly are sufficient. Thus will they receive truth and not Satan’s lie.
The anointing was received ‘from Him’ and they abide in ‘Him’. Again we ask if this is the Father or Jesus Christ. This continual ambiguity suggests that the relationship with Father and Son was seen as so much one that he did not care to distinguish. As he said in verse 23 ‘he who confesses the Son has the Father also’. However, verse 28 suggests that we should see the primary reference as to Jesus Christ.
The Christian’s Hope 2.28-3.1.
That this is a new sub-section is suggested by the reference again to ‘little children’. Each sub-section is opened with such an appellation (2.1; 2.7; 2.12; 2.18; 3.2; 3.7). Now He turns their thought to the future coming of ‘Him’. He is to be manifested, revealed in His fullness, at His coming. But the very wording also connects it with what has gone before. It is very much a transitional statement.
2.28 ‘And now, my little children, abide in him, so that, if he shall be manifested, we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.’
He now calls on his readers to ensure that they abide (remain) in Him. This may certainly inclusively indicate abiding spiritually but the stress is on abiding doctrinally. To abide in Christ is very much here a matter of acknowledging Him as He truly is, and continuing to look to Him as the true Son, so that when that fact is revealed at His coming they may be bold and have no need to ashamed before Him. The two of course go together. Right doctrine when absorbed produces true spirituality.
‘If he shall be manifested.’ John does not doubt that He will be openly revealed, only when that event will take place. One day He will be seen in all His glory (Mark 13.26; Matthew 16.27) as was glimpsed at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.1-8). They need to be constantly ready so that if His manifestation occurs they will not be caught out, but be able to boldly face Him as He is, and boldly face His judgment seat. For we too will be ‘manifested’ as what we are.
‘And not be ashamed before him at his coming.’ Ashamed because unprepared and caught in sin and darkness, and possibly specifically because of following false teachers.
‘At his coming (parousia).’ This is the only specific mention of the parousia as such in John. The word indicates His personal presence at His coming in line with the other New Testament writings. John too declares the parousia.
2.29 ‘If you know (oida - in the mind) that he is righteous, you know (ginosko - experientially) that every one also who does righteousness is begotten of him.’
And because they know Him they know Him as the Righteous One. They know Him as the One Who, because it was His delight, fully kept, and requires the joyous keeping of, God’s will as seen in His commandments and His Law (Hebrews 10.7, 9; Romans 7.22; Psalm 1.2; 40.8; 112.1; 119.16 and often in that Psalm. Note also in Psalm 119 the constant claim to love His Law). Thus they know that one test of who is begotten of Him is that they live righteously, that they ‘do His commandments’, and that those who joyously and gladly live righteously, that is in accordance with God’s Law, do so because they are begotten of Him. True righteousness can only result from God’s begetting. This contrasts with those who struggled to keep the Law in order to gain merit, for whom it was a burden not a joy.
‘Begotten of Him.’ In context this means ‘begotten of Christ’. Verse 28 has specifically had Christ in mind, and 3.1 opens with a new subject, ‘the Father’. The normal expression for John is ‘begotten of God’ (3.9; 4.7; 5.1, 4, 18 see also John 1.12-13). But Jesus could speak of men being ‘born of the Spirit’ (John 3.6, 8). And He Himself said that as the Son He ‘had life in Himself’ (John 5.26), and that it is His voice that will raise the dead, and those who hear will live (John 5.25), speaking there of the new birth to eternal life (verse 24). ‘Begotten of Christ’ sealed the emphasis that John has been putting on the close working relationship between the Son and the Father. Once again it illustrates how closely John parallels Jesus Christ with God.
3.1 ‘Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew him not.
The thought of being begotten by Christ now raises John to adoration in the face of such a glorious truth. See, he says, what kind of love the Father has bestowed on us. He has not only called us children of God, but actually made us so through Christ’s begetting. We truly are His children, begotten of Christ, begotten of God. Such was His love freely bestowed on us. And that is why the world does not acknowledge us or know us, for it also failed to acknowledge and know Him in Christ (John 1.10-11). The next section reveals more of why this is. The world is lawless and therefore rejects those who are true children of God and introduce the law of love.
‘Behold.’ This is an unusual use of ‘behold’ for usually when it is used something visible is to be seen. And yet John might well have felt that there was something visible to look at, the children of God to whom he was writing and those in his own church grouping. ‘Look’, he might be saying, ‘at all the children of God that there are, these doers of righteousness in a sinful world (2.29). And this is what God has done.’
‘Behold what manner of love.’ For ‘what manner of’ compare Matthew 8.27 where it is asked concerning Jesus, ‘what manner of man is this?’ Or 2 Peter 3.11 where the question is, ‘what manner of persons you ought to be.’ Thus it contains the idea of quality, of superiority. Who has known love like this in its greatness and its splendour? Who else could ever have done such a thing? This is the first direct reference in the letter to the Father’s love for us (but see 2.15), although what has gone before has revealed His love. John is now moving on to expound on God’s love.
‘The Father has bestowed on us.’ Note first that it is the love of the Father. He Who is over all, the great Giver, Who gives rain to the just and the unjust, has bestowed on us who belong to Him His love. It is a wonderful gift, yet not merited, not earned, but freely bestowed as from a great King to His subjects, and it is selective, it is bestowed only on those who believe on Him, who look to Him for salvation, who become His true spiritually-born children.
And note secondly that this great love of the Father is bestowed on us. It is ours, not through our having earned it, not through our having deserved it by any means, but because in His gracious love He has bestowed it as a gift. And because of it we do not love the world (2.15).
‘That we should be called children of God; and such we are.’ There are two points here, that we are called children of God, and that we really are children of God. The calling of us as children is the act of naming. It is a public demonstration of God’s favour before all beings. The world may not notice but the angels look on at the naming ceremony and wonder. These puny mortals have become the Father’s children.
But even more wonderful is that it is actually true. ‘And such we are.’ The Father has begotten us to Himself. He has imparted His seed (verse 9), He has given us new life, He has planned for us a glorious future with Him.
John never speaks of us as sons (huios) of God. That term is reserved for Jesus. He alone is the unique Son. He alone is of the same essence. But through His working within us we become His children, and in a secondary sense ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4). It alters our attitudes, it alters our aims, it delivers us from the world because we see everything differently (2.15-16; 2 Peter 1.4). It makes us seek after righteousness, for that has become our nature.
‘For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew Him not.’ But the world is oblivious of our privilege. It does not know. And it does not want to know. It deliberately closes its eyes and heart to God’s children. And why? Because it rejects all that is from God. It turns its eyes from such things. It knows Him not because it rejects His revelation of Himself in creation and in conscience (Romans 1.18-25; 2.14-16). And most of all because it does not acknowledge the One He sent (John 1.9-11). It is blind and in darkness, and yet at the same time giving the impression that it wants to find Him. But it wants Him on its own terms, as One Who is subject to its own opinions and its own ideas. It does not want light, it does not want to have done with sin. That is why it would welcome the false teachers.
But those who do receive Him are blessed indeed. They are begotten of God (John 1.12-13). They become His true children, born from above by the Spirit of God. But the remainder reject the light. They do not want it. And they continue not to want it.
God’s People Contrasted with The Lawless World (3.2-6).
Following on his declaration that God has begotten His true people through Christ so that they are His children (tekna - John only uses ‘son’ of Christ), John now calls them to Godlikeness. They are to be so in the light of the glorious thing that God will do in them in making them like Christ and like Himself. For to sin is to be lawless, and sin is no part of God, it is against all that He is. Thus it is impossible to dwell in Him and be ‘a sinning one’. It is impossible to be His child and follow the world. None must be deceived. Those who deliberately continue in sin neither see Him (Who is the Light) nor know Him.
3.2-3 ‘Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we will be like him, for we will see him even as he is. And every one who has this hope set on him (or ‘in him’) purifies himself, even as he is pure.’
‘Beloved.’ Possibly opening a subsection, but to also be read as a continuation. We split the letter for convenience, but each part runs into the next. Such expressions continue to reveal the love and concern in the Apostle’s heart.
Both the present and the future is glorious for His true children, those who have come to Him through Christ. Now they already are the true children of God. That is glorious indeed. They are His own. Let them rejoice in that and consider it well. But an even more glorious future awaits. For what they will be has not yet been fully revealed, indeed is so glorious that it cannot be known until it is revealed. For it is so glorious that we can only know it when He is openly revealed in all His glory. Then we will know and will be made like Him, for we will see Him as He is.
‘Now we are the children of God.’ Walking in a world in darkness we have light, we are children of light (John 12.36; Luke 16.8). Walking in a spiritually dead world (Ephesians 2.1) we have life, eternal life (5.12-13; John 10.28). Walking in a godless world we have God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ Who watch over us.
‘It is not yet made manifest what we shall be.’ What we shall be in the future is not yet clearly revealed. It is beyond our most glorious expectation. It is to be made like Him, and until we know fully what He is like we cannot even begin to appreciate it. Now we see dimly as in a distorted mirror, but then we will see Him face to face (1 Corinthians 13.12). Then it will all become clear to us.
‘We know that, if he shall be manifested.’ The ‘if’ is a reminder that John’s hope was not that he might die but that he might be alive to enjoy the glorious transformation at the coming of Christ (1 Corinthians 15.52-54; 1 Thessalonians 4.17). But he was well aware that he might die first (John 21.23). The manifestation of Christ will take place at the end. Then will the fullness of His glory be revealed, to the joy of His own and the disconsolation and tragedy of the world (Mark 13.26; Matthew 16.27; Revelation 1.7; 19.11-16).
‘We will be like him, for we will see him even as he is.’ It is so wonderful that we can hardly believe it. We will be like Him as He will be then. No pale imitation or copy here. We will be transformed, both those who are alive at His coming, and those who are dead in Christ, and we will be made like Him, holy and without blemish before Him in love (Ephesians 1.4), ‘conformed to the image of His Son’ (Romans 8.29).
‘For (or ‘because’) we will see him even as he is.’ We will see the fullness of His glory. The ‘for’ or ‘because’ may simply introduce the glorious pattern of what we shall be, or it may even be suggesting that seeing Him as He is will contribute to our being made like Him. The light of His glory will fully awaken the glory that He has implanted within us in ‘eternal life’. The seed will sprout, the flower will come to full bloom. Whichever is true the effect will be the same, and it will be all of God.
‘And every one who has this hope in (set on) him purifies himself, even as he is pure.’ Such a vision of glory can only have one effect on us now. Once we take it into our hearts it can only have this effect, a determined longing to achieve it as soon as possible, to be Christ-like now, to be pure as He is. And if that is our hope it must also be our aim. Every one who has this hope sets diligently about making themselves pure, through the word, through prayer, through meditation, through exhortation, through hearing the word, through godly living, through continual submission to God, through yielding their lives and bodies for Him to live through them, not because they hope thereby to earn it, but because it is already their destiny and they want to enjoy it to the full. They commence the process of bringing about His purpose for them. It is inevitable.
It is true that we commence from lowly beginnings. Once we are ‘born from above’ we see the glory of Christ only dimly. We are babes. We are little aware of the truth about ourselves. But we begin the journey to Christlikeness, to becoming what God has purposed for us as God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2.13). And so as we grow we become more and more aware, and are transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3.18) and thus we become more and more like Him until that day that we see Him as He is and all is then completed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and we are made like Him. Such a gift has never been bestowed before.
But what of those whose growth is stunted, who never grow up, who are still gripped by the world, who reveal little evidence that they are His children? The answer is that if they are fully like that they have no life within them, they are not God’s workmanship, they can have no assurance that they are His. But in the final analysis we are not judges of what a man is, we cannot see the workings of his heart, and it is not therefore for us to pass the final judgment. There is perhaps a work which is taking place which we cannot see. God may have a purpose that we cannot know. It is between that man’s heart and God. But let him beware lest the ruin of his house be great.
One way in which we discover His purity is, of course, through reading the Gospels. As we read and reread them, so the purity and moral glory of Jesus Christ will implant itself in our hearts, and we will then seek to fulfil it in our lives. We become what we read, for good or for bad.
‘Purifies.’ The verb is a rare one in the New Testament and is used of ceremonial purification (John 11.55 and in Acts), but it is used in James 4.8; 1 Peter 1.22 of moral purification as here. It seems to suggest that just as men ceremonially purified themselves for participation in ceremonies such as Passover, so Christians, in readiness for appearing before their Lord, will morally and spiritually purify themselves in readiness for that day.
Some see, ‘we shall be like Him for we shall see Him He is’ as referring to God. The idea being that for the first time we will be able to look on God as He really is. And then all that is impure will shrivel before Him. The thought is certainly true. But the context is the manifestation of Christ in His glory, and John surely has in mind the glimpse of that glory that he had seen at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.1-8). He knows exactly what an effect that can have.
3.4-6 ‘Every one who practises sin practises also lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness, and you know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abides in him does not sin. Whoever goes on sinning has not seen him, nor knows him.’
To continue sinning without regard, says John, is to be lawless. It is to reject the will of God, and to refuse to walk in His ways. It is to reject His authority. To go on sinning without regard to God’s commandments (whether old or new) is lawlessness. For sin is lawlessness. And those who walk in that way are rejecting God, however religious they may be. And the one who has received such a gift as has been described cannot be like that. It is impossible.
Those who believe that He was manifested, openly revealed through His life and teaching and subjected to His self-humiliation, in order to get rid of sin and lawlessness, and to take them away (John 1.29) through His sacrifice on the cross, and that He was and is Himself sinless, can surely not themselves cling to sin? It must surely be abhorrent to them, as it is abhorrent to Him. Thus those who claim to know Him and to remain with Him, to dwell with Him, will if it is true not practise sin, they will not ‘go on sinning’ without regard, and those who do continue ‘going on sinning’ with little concern simply reveal that they have not seen Him nor known Him. For the effect of ‘seeing’ Him is to want to be like Him, and the effect of ‘knowing’ Him is to be aware that He is light, and that sin cannot dwell in His presence, and that therefore all darkness must be done away.
John was not self-deceived. He was well aware that he and his fellow-disciples had sinned often while they travelled with Jesus during His earthly manifestation of Himself, and equally often had had to be rebuked, but he also knew well that it was not because they were careless about sin. They wanted not to sin but were hindered both by their own weakness and by ignorance. The same had continued to a lesser extent after the resurrection (Galatians 2.11-13; 1 Timothy 1.15). They had not suddenly become totally sinless. But the point is that they had wanted not to sin (compare Romans 6.12-14; 7.14-25), and when they discovered that they had, they had been ashamed of their sin, and they had sought forgiveness. They had wanted to be done with sin. (Compare 1.7-2.2). It is another thing totally to practise sin without regard, or as a religious statement as a result of wrong belief.
These words conform quite clearly with Jesus own teaching. ‘Why do you call Me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?’ (Luke 6.46; Matthew 7.21-22). Such people deliberately do not seek to do the will of God, and the end of such is the ruin of the house that they have built, the ruin of their lives (Luke 6.49), and they suffer rejection from the Kingly Rule of God because they do not want His rule (Matthew 7.21-23). It is clear that Jesus did not make a differentiation between a superior and an inferior kind of Christian, one who abides and one who does not abide. It is one thing to struggle against sin and fail, it is another not to be concerned about sin. The latter is to reject the will of God.
Some have tried to argue that the present tense cannot have this meaning unless qualified in some way. But that is not so. The present tense can mean precisely this, and as with much language its meaning must be determined by its whole context.
‘In Him is no sin.’ The theme of Jesus’ sinlessness appears in John 8.46, where Jesus asked his adversaries, “Which of you is able to convict me of sin?”, a question to which his adversaries gave no answer. The same theme of the sinlessness of Jesus is found in, for example, 2 Corinthians 5.21; 1 Peter 2.22 and it is directly affirmed by the author’s words here. He was the perfect Lamb of God. There was no blemish in Him.
We must remember that one reason for this contrast between those who go on sinning and those who do not is the false teaching of their opponents. It seems that some of them taught that sin was not important, it was simply a manifestation of the flesh, and they believed the flesh was not important. One day the soul would discard the flesh. Thus the flesh could do what it liked. It was thus not really sin at all. So they could go on ‘sinning’ as much as they liked. (Others, though not involved here, sought to deal with the flesh by punishing it, by asceticism). What mattered was to purify the soul by obtaining esoteric knowledge. Some even taught, ‘let us continue in sin that grace may abound’ (Romans 6.1, 15). No, says John, those who practise sin and go on sinning without regard are not of God, and are in direct contrast with those who recognise that sin is important, and though weak and failing (1.8-10), have done away with sin in Christ (1.7, 9; 2.1-2) and seek to do away with sin in their lives.
Show me a man who says, ‘It does not matter whether I sin or not’ and I will show you a man who has not received God’s life within him.
The Way That Men Walk Reveals Whose Children They Are (3.8-10).
3.7-8 ‘Little children, let no man lead you astray. He who practises righteousness (carries righteousness into practise) is righteous, even as he is righteous, he who practises sin (deliberately carries sin into practise) is of the devil, for the devil sins from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.’
John wants to make sure that no one leads them astray and deceives them about the truth. Each man, says John, has one of two basic aims, either to carry righteousness into practise in every aspect of their lives, that is, by seeking to live as God has revealed in order to do His will, (including obedience to His Instruction or Law in the Scriptures), or to go on practising sin and thus demonstrating that they are careless about the will of God. Men are for God or against Him. The one puts righteousness into practise because he is seeking to please and be like the Righteous One, because there is a righteousness implanted within him. Such people are aiming to be like Him, because they are His. The other is of the Devil. Such people are lawless, just like the Devil has been, right from the beginning. They do not want God’s laws or seek His will. ‘From the beginning’ is probably a reference to Genesis 3-4. They set themselves against the will of God, just as he did.
Paul put it quite clearly. ‘I as I am in myself with the mind serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin’ (Romans 7.25). The one was his choice, his option, his desire, his aim. The other his weakness, his curse, that from which he longed to be delivered.
‘To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the Devil.’ Indeed this was why Jesus came into the world as the light of the world, so that what the Devil had achieved might be destroyed, so that what he had done might be nullified. Rebellion and lawlessness are the Devil’s work. It was the Devil who first led man to rebel against God, and who stirred up Cain to kill Abel, and he has been doing it ever since. Jesus came to thwart him and to bring man back under the Kingly Rule of God. That was the purpose of His coming.
‘The works of the Devil.’ The closest parallel to this in John is in John 8.41, where Jesus tells those who were seeking to kill him, ‘You are doing the deeds of your father,’ and again in 8.44, ‘You are of your father the Devil.’ Those great ‘lawkeepers’ were demonstrating their lawlessness, and thus that they had chosen to follow the Devil, to be ‘children of the Devil’, behaving like him. Theirs was a set attitude of mind. All who choose the way of sin, says John, are like them.
3.9 ‘Whoever is begotten of God does no sin, because his seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God.’
For the plain fact is that if a man has been begotten of God, God’s seed is within him. Begetting involves the planting of seed. And he who has been planted with God’s seed has been made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1.4). The divine light and life is planted within, they are children of light (John 12.36; Ephesians 5.8). Thus there is that within them which militates against sin, and makes them abhor the thought of it. Such a person does not want to be a sinner. He cannot go on carelessly sinning, because he is begotten of God and has become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). It is against what he now is. Sin has become something that is contrary to what he is as a new man. Something new within him begins to say ‘no’ to sin.
‘His seed continues (abides) in Him.’ Peter describes God’s seed as incorruptible and lifegiving, and as related to His word, saying of Christians that they are, ‘begotten again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides for ever’ (1 Peter 1.23 compare James 1.18). For the seed is sown through His word of power and comes forth to do His will (Isaiah 55.11), and achieves His will and continues for ever. Nothing can prevent its progress and the completeness of its success. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit (John 3.6 compare John 1.12-13). Thus the seed is the result of the work of the Spirit through His word. It is a principle of divine life planted within by God.
In the same way Jesus told the parable of the sower. The seed was sown. In some cases the seed was lost, it did not abide. But in the case of the good seed it continued, it flourished, it produced a harvest, in some thirtyfold, in some sixtyfold, and in some a hundredfold. Not all the good seed flourished equally, but all produced a harvest. For the good seed grows in a way that is beyond man’s understanding and brings about God’s will (Mark 4.27).
The ancient mind did not separate man’s seed from wheat’s seed as strictly as we might. All seed was seed. Thus the further jump to God placing His life-producing seed within man was not difficult.
3.10 ‘In this the children of God are clearly revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God, nor he who loves not his brother.’
So the children of God are clearly revealed. They are revealed by the fact that they love God and obey His teachings, that they are those who love their brothers who are true in the faith. This does not make them children of God, it results from the fact that they are. But those who do not seek to obey God’s will, who are not ‘righteous’, and who do not love those who are true in the faith, simply reveal themselves as what they are, the children of the Devil (that is, those who behave like the Devil in his refusal to listen to God).
It should be noted that the level of righteousness might differ from babyhood to maturity. For the babe in Christ must learn what righteousness is. But the aim of each will now be the same. To please God and be done with sin.
It will be noted that there is no suggestion of being ‘begotten by the Devil’. The Devil works by deceit and treachery, not by begetting. He is an intruder. The contrast with being begotten or born of God is being begotten or born of human flesh. When men are taken by him and ensnared by him it is a work of outrage. It is not the natural order of things. But nevertheless it is their free choice. They too respond because of what they are. They have by free choice taken up their stand against the will of God.
‘Nor he who loves not his brother.’ This seeming appendage now introduces a whole section where the main emphasis is on love, both God’s love and love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Centrality of Christian Love (3.11-4.21).
The reference to loving one’s brother, deliberately added almost as an appendage in 3.10 in order to introduce the next section, now leads on to that section where love is pre-eminent. Previously any emphasis has been on God’s love for His own (2.5, 15; 3.1) although love of fellow-Christians has not been totally ignored (2.8-11), but from now on the thought becomes central. The emphasis has been on the fact that God is pure, unalloyed light (1.5), and His love must therefore be seen as coming from within that sphere of light, but now he tells us that from the God Who is light issues forth His holy love, for He is not only light but love (4.8). God, says John, is holy love, love which is also pure, righteous and true, and so we who live in the light should love one another, for if we are His it will be part of what we are.
The Essential Nature of Christian Love As A Test Of Faithfulness to God (3.11-15).
In all this we must keep in mind that the emphasis is on loving our brothers who are true to the Gospel, those who walk in the light. As we have seen earlier, whether men love those who are true to the Gospel reveals their own attitude to the Gospel. They love those who are of the truth because they love the truth. The same is true here. One final test of a Christian is love for those who are true to God, and love for the truth itself, resulting from walking in the light.
3.11-12 ‘For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain was of the evil one, and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous.’
‘For this is the message which you heard from the beginning.’ Compare 1.5. Here the reference to ‘the beginning’ is possibly to the beginning of their Christian lives, for the message is to love one another. Compare 2.24. Alternatively the thought may be that ‘the beginning’ that they heard from was Genesis 2-4 (compare 3.8). For relationships between brothers have been there since the beginning of mankind. The message that God is light is now being followed by the message that God is holy love, but it is love that is compatible with that light.
John begins the section by concentrating on the importance of Christians loving fellow-Christians, those true to the essentials of the faith. He points out that it has been true from the beginning, even from the time of Adam. For there were two brothers (Genesis 4). One was righteous. He sought to be faithful to the will of God. The other was rebellious. He did not ‘do well’. He did not seek the will of God. And so, instead of repenting, rebellious Cain slew righteous Abel. He revealed himself as of the Evil One. He revealed himself for what he was, a rebel against God, deceived and influenced by Satan (but not a worshipper of Satan. His descendants probably worshipped God as El). And it was revealed in his failure to love his brother.
And why did he not love his brother? Because his own deeds were sinful and his brother’s righteous. Thus he became inflamed against his brother and killed him.
In both Jewish and early Christian writings Cain appears as a type of those who refuse to obey God and who refuse to love their brothers. The Testament of Benjamin (7.5), for example, looks forward to the punishment of those who “are like Cain in the envy and hatred of brothers.” Philo expanded on the whole theme. Jude speaks of ‘the way of Cain’ (Jude 1.11). And so on.
3.13-15 ‘Marvel not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love dwells in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’
Cain represented the world in its rebellion against God. So we should not be surprised, if we are true Christians and seek the will of God, that the world hates us, or is against us. For the world rebels against the will of God. And yet it does not like to be reminded of the fact. It wants to be told that it is fine, and those who dwell on earth want to be told that there is nothing wrong with the way that they as men live and the way that they behave. So if any dare to do otherwise they will find themselves hated. If they speak out they will be vilified. The world becomes inflamed against them.
‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.’ This is the crucial factor. Whom we love depicts what we are. Those who love the brothers who are true to the faith (in contrast to those who love the world - 2.15) reveal that they too are true to the faith, and thus that they have passed from death to life. They have eternal life. They are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20). They have ‘crossed over’ from death to life (compare John 5.24).
‘He who does not love dwells in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’ On the other hand those who do not so love dwell in death. They have not passed from death to life. They are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 1.1). They are dead while they live (1 Timothy 5.6). To live is to have been given new life by God and to walk in God’s way and will, according to the highest good. To be dead is to be living according to the course of the world, to live meaninglessly (1 Timothy 5.6). Their failure to love those who declare the truth reveals them for what they are, those who reject the truth, those who reject the will of God. And their attitude towards them makes them the equivalent of murderers. Here John has the words of Jesus in mind whereby one who hates is a murderer (Matthew 5.21-22). We often find in John such assumptions of the recognised Christian tradition as expressed in the Gospels.
‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.’ That is, is like Cain, rebelling against God’s ways. But hate here is not a consuming hatred, (although it can become that), it is to have an aversion, in this case to the truth, and therefore to those who hold the truth.
And the result of this is that they cannot have eternal life dwelling in them, for they have within them the seed of murder, they are murderers at heart. And the one who is so ready to continue in such a thought reveals by that fact that he sees and walks contrary to the will of God and is therefore lost. (This refers to the set attitude of mind and not the instant thought. Things can happen that make even the best of us sometimes feel like ‘murdering’ someone).
Exhortation That Our Christian Love Should be Practical (3.16-24).
As throughout John is now concerned that those he speaks to should examine their hearts to ensure that they really are true Christians. He has been speaking of faith, but now he comes down to practicalities. And his word is that those who are truly Christ’s will reveal it practically in the way that they show love to their fellow-Christians. Indeed his concern is lest they be making a profession of being Christians and yet be revealing themselves in their lives to be a sham.
3.16 ‘By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’
He now draws attention to what that love must be like. It is a love known through experience (‘we know’), for love is what Jesus showed in His life and practised, and through which we have benefited. Jesus, he points out, gave us an example of it, by laying down His life for us. He did the opposite to Cain. Instead of taking life He gave His life. It is therefore sacrificial love. It is an all-giving love. It is practical love. It is love that is full of consideration for others. Indeed if we so truly love we will be ready to lay down our own lives for the brethren, and especially for those who bring us the truth.
But the thought goes deeper than that, for here John is linking love for the brethren with the love that brought Jesus to the cross. This is Christian love, love linked with the cross, love that is unlike any known before, love that gave itself on the cross to bear men’s sins, love that takes part in Christ’s sacrifice of Himself and lives it out (Galatians 2.20), and thus it is love that is dead to sin and reveals true Christian faith (compare 4.9-10; John 10.15-18).
3.17 ‘But whoever has the world's goods, and observes his brother in need, and shuts up his compassion from him, how does the love of God abide in him?’
Yes, says one glibly. I am ready to lay down my life for the brethren, I am ready to take up the cross. Good, says John. But what about a brother in need? How do you behave towards him? If you have this world’s goods, and observe your brother in need, what do you do? Do you pass by on the other side? Do you have a closer look and do nothing? Or do you actually go up to him and help him in his need? If you do not do the last, if you stem the compassion that must surely spring up within you, without doing anything, and close your heart, how can you say that God’s love dwells in you? If you do not help him you are showing that His love does not dwell in you. For, if you have God’s love dwelling in you, you could not possibly behave in such a way to one beloved of God. How we behave towards His people demonstrates how we feel towards God.
‘Has the world’s goods.’ The word for goods is bios, usually translated ‘life’, and is so in 2.16 where loving the world is in mind. They are the means of life. Note that they are the world’s goods. The person who withholds such goods demonstrates that he loves the world more than he loves the needy brother. He deprives him, as it were, of the means of life because of his own love of possessions, because of his love for the world. How can one who loves the world like that, asks John, claim to have God’s love within him?
We note that all this relates to love between those who claim to be fellow-Christians. This is not because John is not concerned about the world outside, but because of the importance of love between Christian brothers. It is a vital test of true Christian faith. He no doubt recognised that those who fail to love their fellow-Christians will certainly not be concerned about the world outside. But that is outside his purview here. His concern here is actually with the subject of the action, not the object, with those who claim to be Christians. He is not talking about general attitude and behaviour, he is carrying out a stern examination of believers. He wants them to face up to what they are. In the case of fellow-Christians they should have a deep reason for compassion, for they are considering those who share with them in God. So if they do not help them their case is hopeless. Indeed they are revealing that they do not actually have God’s love dwelling within them. If they fail this test, they fail all.
3.18 ‘Little children, let us not love in word, nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.’
John then follows his specific example with a general plea. It is not only in charitable giving that we should love. Our love, if true, should not be just something we talk about but something we live out practically in every aspect of our lives. Glib words are easy, saying that we love costs nothing, but practical living is the test. It proves whether love is really true or not, indeed whether it is in accordance with the truth. Therefore, he says, let us make sure that it is by loving in what we do and in truth, by loving what God loves.
‘Little children.’ The love of the Apostle constantly shines through. He writes, not judgmentally, but from loving concern. And yet that gives even greater force to his words. If he could be lenient he would be.
3.19-20 ‘By this we will know that we are of the truth, and will convince (persuade) our heart before him, because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.’
To the modern commentator these and the following verses are seen as somewhat linguistically complicated. This may possibly arise from the Greek spoken in John’s environment. What may seem to us complicated Greek may merely be colloquial. But whatever the case we must do what we can with it.
‘By this’ must surely refer back to the previous verse, for it makes little sense to look for an application for it in what follows. It is by being genuine in the outworking of love for our fellow believers in the truth that we can know that we are of the truth. It demonstrates our love for the truth.
‘And will convince (persuade) our heart before him.’ John expects that his letter will have made his readers and hearers ask themselves personal questions about their own state. He knows that their consciences will be at work. That is part of the purpose of his letter. So he wants to give them some assurance. Having examined themselves he wants them, if they are genuine Christians, to be convinced in their own hearts that all is well with them.
So he points out that once they can be satisfied that their love for their brethren who hold to the truth is genuine, and being genuinely lived out, they can know that they are of the truth, and can therefore convince themselves that all is right between them and God (‘right before Him, that is, in His presence’) in their hearts and consciences in His presence (‘Heart’ indicates the whole inner man, including reason, will, conscience and emotions). The point here is not that love for the brethren saves, but that it reveals that they are within the flow of truth, that they love the truth. It is among the true brethren that the truth is held and preached, and to love them and not the false prophets is to demonstrate a willing acceptance of the truth they teach.
‘Because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.’ The question here is as to whether this is intended to give further assurance, that even if we still doubt (a sign in this case of a tender conscience rather than a lack of love), our genuine self-examination is evidence that we are genuine, and we can therefore remember that God knows all things and will therefore still accept us, so that our hearts can finally be convinced even in the midst of doubt. We can take comfort from God’s all-knowing and know that He knows the genuineness of our faith. Or whether it is a caveat entered on the basis that God knows all things and knows how we really think and are, and suggests therefore that we need to look to ourselves. The context suggests that the first is in mind. John wants God’s people to have assurance. But it may be that he wanted it to be ambiguous in order to meet different cases. The one of tender conscience to take comfort from it. The more hardhearted to be made to think.
Christian confidence is a theme of John. He has previously spoken of coming to God in confident confession (2.1), of having confidence before God at the coming of Christ (2.28), and he later speaks of having confidence at the judgment (4.17), and of the confidence believers have with God when they pray (5:14-15). This would support the idea that his aim is to plant confidence here. He seeks for Christians to be confident if they have true grounds for confidence.
3.21-23 ‘Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God, and whatever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment.’
On the assumption that they have convinced themselves that their response is genuine, he now goes on to outline its significance.
If their hearts do not now condemn them then they can have boldness in the presence of God (‘towards God’), and be sure that whatever they ask of Him they will receive, because they keep His commandments, and do what is pleasing in His sight. In other words, because they know that they are eager to do the will of God, they can have assurance that His work in their hearts is genuine, and can approach Him in prayer with confidence.
But we must beware of taking the promise too literally out of context. It is clearly not true that God will give us whatever we ask. If we ask for the things of the world, as opposed to what is necessary for living, that is contrary to the will of God. The promise is given only to those who keep His commandments and do what is pleasing in His sight, for they will then ask for what is right. Their prayers will be for the extension of the Kingly Rule of God and, apart from that which is necessary for their functioning in His service, not for themselves. This is in line indeed with what Jesus taught them (Matthew 6.7-15). The point here is that they can be bold to seek His help in bringing about the extension of His Kingship, and in thwarting the false prophets. Compare John 14.13-16; 15.7, 16; 16.23-26) where the promises were given to the Apostles in the light of their coming ministry. In one of these formulations (John 16.23-24) Jesus uses almost identical terminology to the present verse.
And what are His commandments? They are that they believe in His Son Jesus Christ (compare 2.22-23), and that they love one another (compare 2.8-11). The first is the old commandment ‘hear His word, come to the truth and receive eternal life’, the second the new, ‘love your brothers’ (2.7-8). Without the first the second would in fact be meaningless, because there would be no definition as to whom they were to love.
So the first commandment is to believe on His Son Jesus Christ, with all the consequences that follow. For those who believe on Him have eternal life (5.12-13; John 1.12-13; 5.24; 10.28) for His commandment is eternal life (John 12.50). Thus it is by believing in Him that they will have eternal life.
It is not enough to believe in God, he is saying. The test of a genuine faith towards God, as laid down by God, is that they believe in His Son Jesus Christ with all that that involves. That they accept Him as His only Son, the only begotten God (John 1.14-18). That they accept that to have known Him is to have known the Father (John 14.9; 8.18). That they accept that all that the Father has is His, so that He can call all that is the Father’s ‘Mine’ (John 16.15). That they accept that all judgment has been committed to Him (John 5.22, 26). That they accept the fact that He can make alive whom He will on equal terms with the Father (John 5.21). That they accept that He is equally deserving of honour as the Father (John 5.23). That they accept that He is the eternal ‘I am’ (John 8.58). That they accept that the Holy Spirit of God does His bidding (15.26). That they accept the fact that He and the Father together come to make their dwellingplace in His own (John 16.7). That they accept that the Father has glorified Him with His own self and glory, the glory which They once shared together before creation (John 17.5). That they accept that as the Word He is God, and the Creator of all things (John 1.1-3). It was acceptance of all this which made Thomas cry out, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20.28).
The second commandment is that they love one another. We note at once the parallel between these commandments and the two great commandments, that ‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ and that ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12.30-31), but here it is ‘believe in the name (nature, character, being) of His Son Jesus Christ’ and ‘love one another’. Love is to flow upwards and outwards. This is the new Israel.
3.24 ‘And he who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.’
John sums up the section by indicating the close relationship between ‘keeping His commandments’ and ‘abiding in Him’. Those who do keep (receive, meditate on, hold in the mind and carry through in the life) His commandments, having believed on His Son Jesus Christ (verse 23), do abide in Him, for their response proves their love of Him. It proves they are walking in the light. And the corollary is that He abides in them. They are indwelt by God, and dwell in God. And the certain positive final proof of His abiding in us is the Spirit which He gave us, the Spirit Who is therefore God, ‘the anointing’, Who testifies to the truth about Jesus Christ.
This added on phrase now leads on to an examination of the testimony of the Spirit to Jesus Christ. John has just mentioned the commandment to ‘believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ’, now he stresses how important it is that such faith in Him be built on the right foundation.
The Spirits of the Prophets (4.1-6, compare 1 Corinthians 14.29, 32).
John here warns of the dangers of listening to prophets without testing their message, in the way that Paul commanded in 1 Corinthians 14.29, 32. Prophetic men arise and can seem inspired, but the test is whether they speak according to the Scriptures and the testimony of the Apostles, the guardians of the truth appointed by Jesus Himself, who themselves received the truth from Him, especially when they speak about Jesus. That is, whether they are speaking by the Holy Spirit (although John in his letters never speaks of the Holy Spirit. He speaks of ‘the Spirit’. To him there is only one Spirit that counts, just as there is only one Father and one Son), or whether they but speak from within themselves, or even as influenced by the Evil One.
The early church had a regular ministry of prophecy as Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14, and official prophets appear to have been appointed (Acts 11.27; 13.1; 15.32; 21.10), probably on the basis of their continually accepted testimony and the witness of the Spirit in the churches. But such appointments could also spell danger if the prophet went astray, something which was quite possible in pneumatic people. It was therefore recognised that it was constantly necessary for the prophet to be checked out by fellow prophets (1 Corinthians 14.29, 32), and by the Apostles themselves. No one is more likely to go astray than one with an unchecked ‘prophetic spirit’, especially if they have powerful intellects too.
It is probable that prophets travelled from church to church. Their ministry supplemented the hearing or reading of the Old Testament Scriptures and the Testimony of Jesus, the traditions of the life and teaching of Jesus, and the letters of Paul (although smaller churches would have little of such helps and would thus the more eagerly welcome a prophet). So it was important that these prophets could be tested out to see whether they were truly of God.
At this time all the Apostles had probably died apart from John, and he therefore gives his verdict on the testing of the spirits of the prophets. He sadly acknowledges that many who give the appearance of being prophets have become false prophets. Thus he warns that prophets are not necessarily to be believed. Their words must be tested against the Apostolic teaching and the teaching of Jesus.
And one basic test must be their view of Jesus Christ. By this they can test whether their prophetic spirit is of God. Do they say that Jesus is the Christ and that the Christ has come in the flesh? If so they are of God. But if they do not acknowledge the human Jesus as also the Christ then they are not of God. They are antichrist.
The danger at this time was of ‘prophets’ declaring that the Christ had not become a human being. Their belief in the pollution of the flesh was such that many could not countenance such an idea. But the test itself is all inclusive, for it declares that what is meant by ‘Jesus Christ’ must be seen in the light of John’s Gospel and letter. See 3.22-24; and above on 3.21-23. The words spoken in John’s Gospel and the traditions of Jesus spoke of a human being come in the flesh, and His teaching had been proclaimed by a human being (John 1.14), and this same human being had in the body given Himself as a propitiation for our sins (2.1-2), and had at the same time revealed His own Godhood. Then He had risen from the dead in the same body, although a body transformed by the resurrection. If the spirits did not admit to this then they spoke falsely. There could be no compromise on this.
4.1 ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’
‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God.’ We are here faced with a problem of interpretation. What does he mean by ‘every spirit’. At what point is an external ‘spirit’ being spoken of as compared with the actual inner spirit of the prophet? For Paul had spoken of ‘the spirits of the prophets’ and clearly meant by that their own spirits within them as stirred by the Holy Spirit. He would hardly have countenanced a multitude of spirits in the church, and there is no evidence of such elsewhere.
We certainly know of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, and John also speaks of the spirit of error (verse 6), although possibly not having in mind a specific ‘spirit’. In the light of what has been said elsewhere it is possible that we might see this spirit of error as hinting at the Evil One, the Devil (2.13; 3.8, 10; 5.19), or possibly some of his minions, the ‘evil spirits’ of the Gospels, who speak through the antichrists (2.18-19, 22). But then we might rather have expected him to speak of the ‘spirit of deception’. The idea of the spirit of error may simply therefore be of any ‘spirit’, whether the internal spirit of the prophet or an external spirit which possesses him, which prophesies error. For at certain times it might well be just a vivid imagination that was at work. Many things can lead to error.
By ‘every spirit’ John may thus mean that which was seen to be at work in the prophet, of whatever nature it was. It might be the Holy Spirit working through the prophet’s spirit, it might be the prophet’s own spirit stirred up to ecstasy and working on its own inspiration, or it might be an evil spirit possessing the prophet.
‘Prove the spirits.’ As we have suggested above, in 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul spoke of ‘the spirits of the prophets’ he was almost certainly speaking of the prophets’ inner spirit (1 Corinthians 14.32), for he would hardly have countenanced a number of spirits speaking through them. And the fact that John here speaks of ‘every spirit’ as possibly being used by the Holy Spirit confirms the same. There is nowhere else any suggestion of more than one Spirit at work in the churches. Thus this might well be what John mainly means here. But he would certainly recognise that sometimes at least there was something more sinister at work behind false prophets. Either way the test was necessary because there were now so many false prophets.
‘Are gone out into the world.’ These false prophets are of the world. They are not of God, and they have no message from God. They go to the world and preach what the world wants to hear.
But they also visit the churches. And we must remember with what eagerness the churches would welcome Christian brothers. That is why letters of introduction had in the end to take such an important place among them. But these false prophets have no place among Christians, for they preach error. Thus all prophets must be tested. For sadly Christians were becoming enticed by these false prophets. The love of the world still drew some of them.
4.2-3 ‘By this you know the Spirit of God. Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God, and this is that of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming. And now it is in the world already.’
So the spirits of the prophets had to be tested against revealed truth which would determine whether their spirits were inspired by the Holy Spirit. If the prophecy was of new, previously untaught ideas it was probably false. But it could easily be tested out. The Spirit of God at work through the spirits of the prophets (‘every spirit’) could be tested in this way. If they were true their Spirit-inspired spirits would testify that Jesus, came as a human being in the flesh, but was equally the Christ, the One Who was uniquely ‘the Son’ (2.22-23). For that was the revealed truth as proclaimed by the Apostles, and prepared for in the Old Testament.
On the other hand those whose spirits do not prophesy of Jesus at all (but only speak of ‘the Christ’) are not of God, for what they teach is false. Rather they are that which is of antichrist, setting up false Christs instead of the true. The believers in the churches had heard that such were coming. Well, here they were, already in the world. Let them then listen carefully to what was taught before accepting a prophet.
The centrality of Jesus Christ to the Christian faith comes out here. Their view of Jesus Christ was of central importance. Christianity was Christ. All hinged on Him. To be wrong about Him was not to be a Christian at all. Teachers were thus to be tested by whether they proclaimed Jesus Christ, in His life, death and resurrection, as true man and true God.
4.4-5 ‘You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world. They are of the world, therefore speak they of the world, and the world hears them.’
But he is confident that the true Christians will not be misled by false prophets because as true Christians they have ‘the anointing’ (2.20, 27). The Holy Spirit is within them. And He will lead them into truth. And the Father and the Son also abide within them (4.13, 16; 5.12). They are therefore very much ‘of God’. So greater is He (the Triune God) that is in them than the one who is in the world. That is why they overcome ‘them’ by not being deceived or led astray, but by holding firmly to the truth and continuing to win men to such truth. The church may sometimes seem to be on the back foot, but it is not. Through Him it goes forward to victory.
On the other hand the place for the false prophets is the world, for they are not ‘of God’ they are ‘of the world’, and speak what befits the world, and the world listens to them. To the world they are popular. They are ‘of the world’ because there is nothing heavenly about their message (although they would probably have been annoyed at such a suggestion). The content and effects of their teaching are strictly limited to this world and its fantasies and are not harsh on sin.
‘He that is in the world’ could here simply signify each and any false prophet, seen first singly and then in the plural, which might be suggested by the immediate move from ‘he’ to ‘they’. But there may be the thought behind it of the Evil One, who lies behind these false prophets, although we should note that John does not speak of him as being ‘in the world’, rather he describes the whole world as ‘lying in him’ (5.19). So if the latter thought is in mind it is not prominent. On the other hand Christians have earlier been described as ‘overcoming the Evil One’ (2.13), so the mention of overcoming here may well have him in mind, active in the background as he so often is.
4.6 ‘We are of God. He who knows God hears us. He who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.’
The question here is who are ‘we’?’ Does he mean ‘we Apostles’ of whom he is now the representative, or does he mean ‘we churches’, especially the duly appointed leaders. Either way his message is emphatic. ‘We are of God.’ Thus we have the truth. And those who know God hear us, because the anointing within them reveals to them the truth through the word. On the other hand there are some that do not hear us. This demonstrates that they are not of God. That is how the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error can be detected, by whether such men speak in accordance with the true men of the Spirit, with the true Apostolic doctrine.
‘The spirit of error’ is probably intended to cover all angles, whether the prophets’ own spirits, or possessing spirits, or the Evil One himself. All are part of the ‘spirit of error’, the movement and trend in the world towards error.
Having dealt with the question of false prophets, and the importance of establishing the truth about Jesus Christ, John now moves on to deal in much more detail with the question of love within the Christian communities, and its source.
God Is Essentially Light and Love, Holy Love, And Therefore Those who Are His and Know Him and Abide in Him Will Reveal That Love To All Who Are His (4.7-5.3).
4.7-8 ‘Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and every one who loves is begotten of God, and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.’
This statement, beloved of all, especially the world which interprets it totally incorrectly, is not at all quite so simple to understand, and certainly does not mean what the world thinks that it means. It rather seeks to make the believer consider the heart of things. It seeks to settle him down and look at what is most important.
The first question we must ask is, what is meant by love? It is certainly not romantic love. That is represented by a totally different Greek word. Love which is simply the result of sexual arousal and sexual passion has no appeal to Him at all. Indeed He is angry at its misuse by men. Its purpose was to bind man and wife together. Any other use of it He sees as an abomination (Romans 1.24-28). Loving one another has nothing at all to do with this kind of love. God is not involved in emotional tangles.
Nor is it general affection, for the love spoken of is within the Christian community. It is a special kind of love, as exemplified in 1 Corinthians 13. It is a noble love. It is an attitude that intends well to its brother, even when the brother is totally undeserving or is totally the opposite of what appeals to us. It is a mutual oneness based on being in the light and in fellowship with God. It is a holy love. We may not like our fellow-brethren, they may even annoy us sometimes, but we still love them, we still direct our thoughts to their good, we still bear with them (1 Corinthians 13). Because they are in the light as we are, we still seek their sanctification. They are our fellow-travellers on the way to perfect righteousness, our fellow-workers in the purposes of God, our fellow-citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20) with whom we will spend eternity. It is the same kind of love as that described in the commandment, ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’, and yet goes deeper because it is between brothers. But it is not necessarily suggesting deep affection, but a right attitude of heart and mind. Although in the case of loving one’s neighbour the love reaches out beyond the brotherhood.
It gains its meaning from the fact that ‘God is love’. But that also does not mean that God looks on all people with general affection. ‘The wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold down the truth by unrighteousness’ (Romans 1.18). There is no affection there.
Rather God’s love, coming from the One Who is light, is revealed by what He has done. He has sent His only Son into the world in order that we might have life. He has sent Him to a cross that He might become the propitiation for our sins. It is thus great benevolence acting towards those who were totally unworthy. His love comes from what He is, not from what we are. He has little affection for what we are in ourselves. His love comes in spite of what we are. He purposes good towards all (it is thus a true love), but without response His love is individually ineffective. It requires response.
It is specifically a love in the light. There is no love for what is in darkness, except in order to reach out and bring it into the light. His love is offered to all in darkness, to those at whom His wrath, His aversion to sin, is levelled, that He might bring them to His light. But He does not love them as they are. He loves them in spite of what they are. He so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3.16). But it is only to those who respond and believe, or to those that He knows will respond and believe because of His own working, that His love as described here becomes personal.
Thus when the Christian’s love for one another is compared with love as it is in God, it is thinking of love within the Kingship of light, within the sphere of God’s light. It is pure love, holy love. Its concern is for the true wellbeing of others, for their holiness, for their being made pure. It rejoices in righteousness, it strives to achieve righteousness for those within the sphere of that love. That is the love being described here. It is far from being a love that is indulgent towards men, however they behave.
That is not to deny a general benevolence of God in that He still allows provision for His rebellious creatures (Matthew 5.45; Acts 14.17), but it is not because of His love for them in the way described here, but because of what He is, Someone of general compassion. There it is a different kind of ‘love’. It is general benevolence. That is how we too should behave towards all mankind. But it is not love in the light.
‘Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and every one who loves is begotten of God, and knows God.’ This makes instantly clear the unique nature of this love. It is a love that only those begotten of God know and experience. It is love within God’s pure light. It is a love that delights in righteousness and holiness. It is a love that is of God, and is directed at what God loves. It is a love that wants to bring about God’s will, a totally unselfish love. It is a love that the knowing of God produces. It is a love shared with those who love God and are loved by God.
‘He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ The one who does not have this kind of love for his fellow-believers does not know God. For if he did God’s love would possess his heart and he would love those whom God loves. For that is what God is like. He loves all that is within the sphere of holiness and righteousness. He loves in the light, and if we are in the light His love must affect us and love through us.
Thus His love surrounds all who have been accounted as holy and righteous in Christ, and in whose life He has planted His seed whereby they will grow into righteousness and true holiness. His love is effective in all who, because they are in Him, seek to walk without sinning, and who repent of sin when known, and receive His forgiveness and cleansing, all who walk in the light (1.7).
Note on ‘God is love.’
John reveals God in three ways, God is Spirit (John 4.24), God is Light (1.5), God is Love. He uses the most incorporeal things that he knows in order to describe God. To him none had physical form. God as He is in Himself is without body or physical attributes, He is totally separated from all that is evil and in darkness, He is pure light, and He is pure, righteous love. Thus all that He is seeks to produce what is holy, righteous and good, untainted by the effects of sin and of the world. That is what His love seeks to achieve, and will achieve. That is what His love offers. And we are to seek to be like Him. But it is not the physical world itself that is tainted, it is the spirit of the world (2.15-16). God does not love that. His general benevolence is towards His creation, for it is His workmanship. But he does not love the spirit of the world. The spirit of the world is what man has produced without God, with the aid of the Evil One, and love of it is thus condemned. It is self-seeking. It is thus in direct contrast with the ‘love of the brethren’, which seeks not wealth, nor physical satisfaction, nor honour and fame, but the good of others, and especially of those who are God’s.
As such God is totally distinct from His creation. He sees His creation as good. What is not good is what man and the Evil One have done with it, and the spirit that they have introduced into it. Both God’s light and God’s love abhor the spirit of the world. His light reveals it for what it is, and His love seeks to remove it and to call men out of it. It is the ‘power of darkness’, in contrast with ‘the kingly rule of His beloved Son’ where He gives to those who respond to Him ‘the inheritance of those who are separated to God in light’ (Colossians 1.12-15).
It is under that kingly rule, and to those who are under it, or who will be under it, that His love fully shines forth. To those who are ‘in the world’ He shows a general benevolence, but His love as the God Who is love is only fully shown to those who walk in His light, and have turned from sin in their hearts, for only they are receptive to it. His benevolence in general is open to all, His general benevolence reaches out to all, but His full love as the God Who is love can only become experienced and personal to those who respond to Christ and receive the life that He offers, eternal life, although the same love is active in seeking to bring men to this point. It is His love that draws men to respond to Christ (John 6.44). It is His love that has given to Jesus Christ those whom He has chosen (John 6.37, 39).
God does not love all men as they are. His wrath is revealed at what they are (Romans 1.18). But His love reaches through with the aim of making some respond to Him so that they may enjoy His love. It is a love revealed to such from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1.4) which will be fulfilled within His final purposes. It is holy love.
But the message that John is emphasising stresses that God in His ‘otherness’ from His creation Himself became true man in Jesus Christ, so that He might be the representative of man in His death on the cross and in His physical resurrection. It was as God-made-man that He died on the cross for our sins, and as glorified God-made-man that He took His seat at the right hand of God, a distinction necessary because while in His Godhood He was One with the Father on His throne, in His glorified manhood He received His own throne to which He calls His own (Revelation 3.21).
The physical creation is therefore not in itself evil. It is what man has made of it that is evil. And the creation itself will therefore be ‘redeemed’ by itself also being totally transformed, so that it will result in a new Heaven and a new earth in which dwells righteousness (2 Peter 3.13; Revelation 21.1; Romans 8.19-21). In this will His love for His creation be revealed, and all sin, all that is not light, will be done away.
End of note.
4.9 ‘In this was the love of God manifested in us, that God has sent his only unique Son into the world that we might live through him.’
God’s love as in mind in this passage is a love revealed in sending ‘His only unique Son’, (in other words the only One of the same essence and being as Himself. This is using human terminology to depict a divine truth), into the world that we might live through Him. He sent Him in His great love, so that those who would truly respond to Him might have life. And the life we receive is His life, given to us, so that it reproduces His own righteousness and love. It will thus be revealed in love of those who are His.
4.10 ‘In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’
This is the final definition and revelation of love. It is not found in any love that we have, but in God’s great love in which He sent His own beloved Son to be the propitiation for our sins. It is a love that has provided a way back to Him. It is a love that provided a means of doing all that was necessary to remove the effects of sin from those who respond to Him. Propitiation might be too strong a word, because it might suggest unrighteous anger, and God’s ‘anger’ is holy and pure, and never unrighteous, but expiation is too weak a word because it does not take into account God’s positive aversion to sin. What this propitiation achieves is that what Jesus has done through His sacrifice of Himself can make a man as though he had never sinned, because all the consequences of God’s aversion to sin, and to man in his sin, were borne by Jesus Christ through His death on the cross. Through it He has redeemed man from sin, delivering him by the payment of a price, being made a ‘ransom in the place of many’ (Mark 10.45). He Who knew no sin was, as it were, made sin for us, suffering in our place, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5.21). There can be no greater love than this. It is the love which expressed itself when God Himself humbled Himself and in Jesus Christ became man in order to bear in Himself the sin of the world (Philippians 2.5-11).
4.11 ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’
The greatness of this love of God, so wonderfully revealed, can only move those who believe in it and respond to it to love one another. How can we know that love and not love those whom God has called through it? We are one in that love. To know and to respond to God’s love should and will result in a desire to reveal that love to all who truly love Him, for we will be transformed by that love and desirous to ensure that the love which flows from what He is, is effective and continuing.
4.12-14 ‘No man has beheld God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit, and we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world.’
We do not abide in God by seeing Him. Indeed no one has beheld God at any time. But His presence among us, and His abiding in us is revealed in the love that flows from us to our fellow-believers. Those who are surrounded and possessed by the God Who is love will become channels of that love, especially to those who are also the channels of that love. This love, which is the evidence that we have been begotten of God and know God, this oneness of heart with God’s true people, this love of the truth and those who are in the truth, will result in God’s love being perfected in us. As we love each other we come better to know the love of God. For intrinsic within this is the response to the truth proclaimed by those who are truly His.
But in the end we know that we abide in Him because of what we have come to believe, for it is God Who has wrought it in us. We know that He has given us of His Spirit, Who has entered our lives giving us new life and making us new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17). And above all we know that the Spirit has revealed to us that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. We have come to believe in the Father’s love in giving His only Son, we have come to believe in His only Son, Jesus Christ, Who came into the world in the flesh and was crucified for our sin and rose again in order to offer salvation to the world.
He is ‘The Saviour of the world.’ He is the One Whose sacrifice is sufficient for the sins of the whole world (2.2). But that sufficiency is only effective for those who believe. So ‘our hope is set on the Living God Who is the Saviour of all men, especially of those who believe’ (1 Timothy 4.10). It is not a question of numbers but of quality. His sacrifice is totally sufficient for all, but can only be effective in those who respond. They alone will be saved. If we have experienced that salvation, how can we not love Him?
4.15 ‘Whoever will confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.’
God’s salvation is only effective through His Son. Each one who truly confesses Jesus as God’s Son, and as the Saviour of the world, believes in the fact that the only Son became flesh in the man Jesus and dwelt among us, and makes that confession as a response of faith in the light of all He has done for us in dying for us. Then as a result of this true faith he has God abiding in him, and himself abides in God. So salvation is through faith, and love for the brethren is one of the outwards signs of the reality of that faith and of our experience of God’s love.
4.16 ‘And we know and have believed the love which God has in us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.’
John wants there to be no doubt about the love that God has for His own, and how it affects us. We who are His, know and believe the love that God has in us. Note that it is in us as well as for us. We have come to the Saviour of the world and experienced and come to appreciate that love, and rejoice that it is within us, resulting in an outflowing of love for God and love for our brothers. We know further that God is holy love, and therefore that to abide in the love with which He surrounds us, which we enjoy in Christ, and which he has placed within us, is to abide in God Himself, and to know that God abides in us. We live within the sphere of the love of God, as well as in the light of God. We thus seek to live in purity.
4.17-18 ‘ Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment, and he who is afraid is not made perfect in love.’
The one who knows the love of God in Christ in him and abides in Him finds that that love is made perfect within him (see verse 12). He is aware of that love as revealed in the giving of a Saviour, and the suffering of a Saviour. He is aware that that love has provided a propitiation for his sins. He is aware that that love has set him apart and will one day present him holy, and unblameable, and unreproveable before God (Colossians 1.22), that it has perfected for ever those who are sanctified (Hebrews 10.14). Thus he is filled with love for God, and for his brothers in Christ who are all within the sphere of that love. Thus he has boldness with regard to the day of judgment. He is unafraid because through the cross and through Jesus Christ he knows that God’s true love, His saving love, His accepting love, surrounds him. He is accepted as righteous in Christ, and that righteousness produces responsive love and acceptance of love. Of what then is he to be afraid? He will stand in the Judgment day in the love of Christ and of God. For he even walks in this world in the love of God, surrounded and sustained by that love, that holy love, so that he himself is ‘as Christ Jesus’. The love wherewith He loves His Son, such is His love for us who are His.
This love casts out all fear. The one who is safe in the love of God cannot be afraid. For there is no fear in love. To be within God’s love in Christ is to be free from fear. Love removes all fear, especially perfect love, which can only signify God’s love perfected in us (verse 12). The one who has God’s love so perfected in him will not fear. It is only those who are to be punished who need fear, and we know that in His love He has been punished for our sin, He has been made a propitiation for our sin, and there is therefore no further punishment to come for us. Thus those who are afraid demonstrate by that fact that they have not been made perfect in love, they are not enjoying the full benefits of the Gospel. There is a lack of faith and trust and obedience and of walking in the light.
‘Fear has punishment, and he who is afraid is not made perfect in love.’ This may suggest that these ones who fear punishment are the false teachers whose end is destruction. They have cause to be afraid because their end is certain. But some fear because they do not trust. They are afraid of punishment when what they should be doing is being made perfect in love. They need to dwell more in His presence and absorb His love, especially as it is revealed through the cross.
4.19 ‘We love, because he first loved us.’
‘We’. That is, we who are His, who have come to believe in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, who come together with His people that we might learn more of Him, who know that Jesus Christ is true man and true God, who have received Him as our means of reconciliation with God, of propitiation before God, who have come to understand His purposes for His own, all His own, who are continually experiencing the working of His Holy Spirit within us. But what is the source of this love which is perfected within us, which gives us this assurance? The source is His love which bestows on us all these things and reaches out to us to draw us ever nearer to Him. Because He first loved us we have entered into the sphere of His love, and this has produced love within us.
What then does this whole passage tell us about His love and what our love should be in relationship to God’s love?
How then can we not ourselves love, both Him and those on whom He has set His love?
4.20 ‘If a man say, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who loves not his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.’
The result is that we will love all who are true brothers in Christ, those who are of and speak forth the truth. For they share the love that we enjoy, and they too are in His love. And they minister to us of Christ, as we should minister to them. Must they not then be within our love, which He has produced within us? It would be an impossible contradiction to be filled with God’s love and not to love those whom God loves. Thus if a man says, ‘I love God’, but hates his brother he is a liar. That is, he does not love God. This is the test of antichrist and of false teaching. They do not love the brethren because the brethren expose their false teaching for what it is, and refuse to countenance their fantasies.
Those who are our brothers in Christ are in fact what we actually see of God. His work is at work within them as it is in us. His work is being accomplished through them. Each member has his part to play, and without each member we are not whole. If we then do not love them, (purpose well towards them and seek their good and rejoice in the truth we share with them), then we do not love the unseen God Who dwells within them, nor are we aware of the purpose to which He has called us.
4.21 ‘And this commandment have we from him, that he who loves God love his brother also.’
So God has made it a command. God commands us to love such brothers. So it is not only logically and spiritually necessary, it is commanded. We have no choice in the matter. We are to be as one (John 17.20-23), because he has commanded it. But it should be noted of what this love consists, it consists of the keeping of the commandments (5.2-3). It is a noble, moral love that seeks wholly the good of the one loved. It is an essential part of God’s whole purposes.
5.1 ‘Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God, and whoever loves him who begat loves him also who is begotten of him.’
Those who have a true faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ as both God and man are begotten of God. Pause for a moment to consider the wonder of that. They have received new life imparted to them by God, the are a new creation, they have received a life of such quality that it is called ‘eternal life’. And it goes without saying that we will love Him. But, says John, if we love the One Who begat us we will also love those whom He has begotten. For they are one with us in Christ, they share the same life as we do, they are our brothers, and our future lies together.
5.2-3 ‘Hereby we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and do his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not grievous.’
And how will we know that we love our brothers? By the fact that we love God and obey His commandments, those commandments which show how we should live towards our brothers and the world, those which give the detail behind the commandment ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 19.19; 22.39; Romans 13.9-10; Galatians 5.14; James 2.8 - he calls it ‘the royal law’). If we fulfil these we are loving our brother in the way required. We note that the loving of our brother has now come within the wider commandments. God has not forgotten the world.
‘And his commandments are not grievous.’ Here we are told that God’s commandments are not ‘weighty, heavy to be borne’. The idea here is that they are not ‘burdensome’ or ‘difficult’. As Deuteronomy 30.11-14 stresses, they are near and not far off. They are in their mouths and hearts, because they love God. Compare Matthew 11.30, ‘My yoke is easy and My burden is light’. In contrast Jesus spoke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23.4 as those who ‘bind heavy loads, hard to bear, and put them on men’s shoulders.’ So the reason that they are not burdensome is because we love God and delight to do His will, and because they are a response to God’s love, carried in the heart, and not a way of earning it.
The True Christian Overcomes By His Faith in Jesus the Son of God (5.4-5).
5.4-5 ‘For whatever is begotten of God overcomes the world. And this is the conquering power that has overcome the world, even our faith. And who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?’
Being begotten of God not only results in our loving those who have been begotten by Him, but enables us also to overcome the world. Those who are begotten of God do not follow the ways and desires and hopes of the world, rather they triumph over them. And what causes them to triumph? Even their faith, their faith in the human crucified and resurrected Jesus as being also God’s Son.
Indeed this faith has already enabled them to overcome. It is the conquering power that has already given them the victory, because He in Whom they believe has gained the victory. We are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us (Romans 8.37). We commence from a position of victory, because we commence in Him..
Thus the true Christian is a guaranteed overcomer. He overcomes the Evil One (2.14), he overcomes antichrist (4.4), and he overcomes the world. This is because his faith is set on Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Who lifts him above the world, gives him conquering power, and reveals to him the inadequacy of the false teaching about the non-human, mythical ‘Christ’ of the false prophets, and the deceitfulness of the Evil One. He enjoys royal protection.
Through The Coming of Jesus God’s Son, Which Was Well Testified To, We Can Know That We Have Eternal Life (5.6-13).
5.6-9 ‘This is he who came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ, not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood, and the three agree in one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater, for the witness of God is this, that he has borne witness concerning his Son.’
Here John now establishes what he has been saying about Jesus the Son of God. Jesus Christ did not just come by water (either through His natural birth or more probably through His baptism), but through water and blood (through the water and blood that flowed from Him at His death - John 19.34). His natural birth/baptism was one way in which He presented Himself, but equally He presented Himself through His physical death. It was a tenet of various false teachers that ‘the Christ spirit’ had come on the body of Jesus at His baptism and had left Him before His death. No, says John, He was the Christ in His death as well as in His life. It was the Christ Who died on the cross.
Indeed this is borne witness to by the Spirit, for He is the Spirit of truth. He came on Jesus with power at Jesus’ baptism, where Jesus was testified to as the only Son and the Servant Who was pleasing to God, and He came to Him powerfully in His death when He raised Him from the dead (Romans 1.4). So all three agree in their witness to Jesus as the Christ, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and all are agreed together and are one in revealing Him as the Christ. In both His life and His death he was the Christ.
The Spirit further bears witness to Christ through God’s witnesses, first the Apostles, then those whom the Apostles appointed, and then through the leaders of the true churches.
But God Himself is also the witness to His Son. He Himself bore witness, for it was he Who sent the Holy Spirit on Him at His baptism, and made His declaration of Who He was as His Son, and how pleasing He was as His Servant, and it was He Who powerfully raised Him from the dead through His Holy Spirit at His resurrection. And His witness is greater than any witness of man.
So if we accept the witness of men, the witness of those who knew Jesus and knew Him in His life and who saw these wonderful events, we must even more accept the witness of God Who not only gave Him His Holy Spirit, Who was both with Him in His baptism and in His death and resurrection, but has also from that time given Him the power to give life to whom He will. For God’s witness is that by this He has borne witness to His Son.
5.10-12 ‘He who believes on the Son of God has the witness in him. He who does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning his Son. And the witness is this, that God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.’
So the one who believes on the Son of God has the witness in Him. He too was a witness. He witnessed to the truth while He was on earth. He witnessed to the truth after His resurrection. And He witnesses to the truth by imparting eternal life to His own and indwelling them. Thus the one who has believed on Him has received eternal life, and has the witness within himself. He has received the Spirit without Whom a man cannot be Christ’s (Romans 8.9). He has received Jesus Christ Himself. On the other hand the one who does not believe God and accept His testimony concerning His Son, is making God a liar, is indeed making out that God is a liar like the Evil One, and this because he does not believe God’s testimony concerning His Son.
For finally this is God’s witness concerning His Son, that He has given us eternal life, and that that eternal life is only receivable through the Son. The one who has the Son has life, and the one who does not have the Son does not have life. It is as simple as that. Eternal life is found only through the Son. It cannot be received from the Father without the Son’s participation.
So arriving at the end of the letter we come back to the beginning. The Word of life has come (1.1) and His commandment is eternal life (John 12.50 with 2.7). This is central to everything. It is the Gospel. All must be born from above (John 3.6). And this life is received by those who believe, not on a human being, not on a phantasm, but on God’s true Son, Who came as a human being, died on a cross providing cleansing (1.7) and propitiation for sin (2.2) and rose again from the dead. Such people then have the witness in themselves, the witness of the anointing, of the Holy Spirit and the word, and the witness of the life within them.
This life is not available to the false teachers. They deny Jesus His Sonship. They reject God’s full testimony concerning His Son. They make Him a liar. For them there is no means of propitiation. For them there is no life. For it is they who are liars, and preach lies. They believe ‘the Lie’ (2 Thessalonians 2.11). God’s testimony to His Son lies in the fact that He demonstrated His lifegiving power by raising Him from the dead as the Son by the Holy Spirit, and enabling Him thereby to give life to those who believed in Him.
And those who do believe on Him receive life. This lifegiving power is in the Son, so that he who has the Son has life, and he who does not have the Son does not have life. Thus those have the Son who believe in Him and have been given life by God through His Spirit. Those who have not believed in the Son do not have life.
5.13 ‘These things have I written to you, that you may know that you have eternal life, even to you who believe on the name of the Son of God.’
And these things are written to his hearers and readers so that they might know that they have eternal life (John 5.24), because they believe on the name of the Son of God. This faith in Him and all He has done for them, has produced eternal life now within them. They are born from above (John 3.6; James 1.18; 1 Peter 1.23; 2 Peter 1.4). They are children of God (3.1-2; John 1.12-13). They have eternal life. And it comes through belief in what He essentially is (His name) as God’s Son.
John concludes his letter with four major points.
They Are to Continue In Prayer As They seek To Establish God’s Kingly Rule (5.14-15)
5.14-15 ‘And this is the boldness which we have towards him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us, and if we know that he hears us whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him.’
Our knowing of Jesus Christ through the Spirit by the Father then fills us with boldness. If He is with us who will say us nay? Thus we know that we can approach Him (God/Jesus Christ) in prayer and know that He hears us. He is our Father Who has begotten us to Himself and when we come as His children, seeking only His will, we can be sure that, whatever we ask, He will both hear and respond, so that we can also know that we will receive the petitions we ask. It need hardly be said that this is not a blanket cheque. Prayers for the things that are in the world can only be displeasing to Him and will rightly be rejected. They may well prove that we are children of the world and not of God. But prayers concerned with the spread of His word and the establishing of His Kingly Rule will certainly be heard, and we will have them in the end. The answer may not come as we expect, or as we desire, but come it will. This is very much a statement that we can have full confidence that in the end the Gospel will prevail through our prayers.
They Are To Be watchful For One Another And continue Instant In Prayer For One Another (5.16-17).
5.16-17 ‘If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for those who do not sin unto death. There is a sin unto death. Not concerning this do I say that he should make request. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death.’
As John had made clear at the beginning he knew that Christians would still continue to sin. Indeed he insisted that all Christians recognise that this failing in them would continue (1.8-10). But they were not ‘sins unto death’, for they could come to Him in the light and be cleansed (1.7). Thus, he says, we should be observant for our brother’s failings as well as our own. Not in order to gloat, or to be self-satisfied, but in order to pray for their restoration. We may see a fellow-Christian burdened down by sin, entrapped by it, finding release difficult. For such a brother we are to pray to God, and God will grant us his restoration. His promise is that He will accordingly restore such. God will give him life for those who do not ‘sin unto death’, rather than the death that without Christ they would have deserved.
What John is stressing here is our repsonsibility to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in the church of which we are members. The early church had a deep sense of their responsibility for one another.
In a sense, of course, all sin is ‘unto death’. 'The soul that sins will die.' But for such there is forgiveness available in Christ. However there is a ‘sin unto death’ for which there is no forgiveness because those involved have so hardened their hearts that they are permanently closed to Christ. They refuse to believe. They see what should convince of them of the truth and still refuse to believe. They invent false arguments in order to avoid believing. Finally such becomes an attitude of heart that nothing can change. Their arguments have solidified in their hearts so that they cannot change. They have put themselves beyond repentance. They have 'sinned unto death.'
John is here concerned that we direct our prayers wisely. Our brothers and sisters who are in fellowship need our prayers, and our prayers will be effective for them because their ears are open to God's voice. But there are those who have hardened themslves and for whom our prayers will probably not be effective. In the end we cannot carry the whole weight of the world on our shoulders.
Consider for example,
All these are those who have deliberately and persistently closed their minds to what in their hearts they knew to be true. The idea is that there is no binding commitment on Christians to pray for such (as there is for those who are 'in the faith'). They have taken themselves beyond the reach of mercy. They are, as it were, outside the sphere of those for whom we should be constantly praying because they have demonstrated that they are not our brothers and sisters in Christ. Prayer for them is not forbidden, only not required, for they are not true brothers, while prayer for true brothers is required.
It should be noted that we have said 'in danger of'. We can never ourselves know whather a person has passed the point of no return. And some may feel that they should pray for such, especially if they are well known to them. But John is looking at our basic responsibilty of prayer for all true believers, and at who should enjoy the main burden of our prayers. He is not, however, forbidding prayer for them.
In the end, of course, all unrighteousness is sin, and thus Christians still sin, and we must bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6.2). But there the sin is not ‘unto death’, because while the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23), their sins have been borne by Another (2 Corinthians 5.21). It is only the sin unto death that puts a person outside the necessity for our prayers.
They Are To Look To The One Who Has Begotten Them to Eternal Life Through Jesus Christ And Keep Themselves from Sin And From The World (5.18-20).
5.18-20 ‘We know that whoever is begotten of God does not continue in sin, but he who was begotten of God keeps himself (or ‘him’), and the evil one touches him not. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in the evil one. And we know that the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding, that we know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.’
John concludes by stressing what we can know with assurance. The first thing we can know is that those who are begotten of God do not continue in sin. They hate sin. They long to be rid of sin. They mourn over sin. They bring it to God and agree with His condemnation of it. (1.9) They seek its removal by cleansing in the blood of Jesus Christ (1.7). Thus do they keep themselves within His love and His Kingly Rule so that the Evil One cannot touch them. Alternately the meaning may be that ‘He Who was begotten of God keeps him’, that Jesus the One Who was uniquely begotten of God acts as his Saviour and Redeemer.
The second thing that we know is that we are of God, while the whole world lies in the Evil One. This was indeed the picture portrayed at Jesus temptations, where the Devil had such unseen power that he could control nations (Matthew 4.8-9). The world thinks that it gets its own way. In fact it is deceived and led along by the Evil One. He is the hidden, but true ruler of this world. It is in his arms. Yet not because of his supreme power, but because man in his foolishness chooses for it to be so. Worldly behaviour and trends and attitudes come because of the deceitful activity of the Evil One. And those who love the world are of him, and can only be delivered by response to Jesus Christ and being begotten of God.
The third thing that we know is that the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding (through the Spirit) so that we know Him Who is true, in contrast with the deceit and lies of the Devil. We have come to the light. And we have entered into Him Who is true, dwelling in Him Who is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. Notice the closeness of relationship between Father and Son. To dwell in One is to dwell in the Other. This (the Father and the Son) is the true God, and eternal life.
So he finishes with this huge contrast. On the one hand the world. Lying in the Evil One, (not ‘in him’ but as good as), deceived, without understanding, alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the hardness of their hearts (Ephesians 4.18), existing in darkness, dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2.1), lulled into a false sleep. And on the other being in the One Who is true, given understanding, knowing the truth, dwelling in God, and in His Son Jesus Christ, walking in the light (1.7), enjoying in and through Him eternal life. This is what the true believer has to rejoice in over against the false ‘believer’, the fact that he has life, spiritual understanding and knowledge of God. Indeed this last situation is the reason for the final exhortation.
They Are To Keep Themselves Out Of The Arms Of The Evil One (5.21).
5.21 ‘Little children, guard yourselves from idols.’
It is regularly said that this comes as a rather strange comment at the end of the letter, almost unattached from the remainder. But that is to miss the point. For having given the great contrast between believers and unbelievers he wants to warn believers against what in those days was a major danger (and can be so in some countries today) for all ex-Gentile Christians, the lapse into contact with idolatrous practises.
You are hid with Christ in God, he as it were says, beware of being caught up again in your former ways. For let them not doubt that what men sacrifice to idols they sacrifice to devils, yes, even to the Evil One (1 Corinthians 10.20; Deuteronomy 32.17). Thus they must guard themselves lest the subtlety of Satan drag them back into what once entangled them, thus preventing their remaining in God and in Jesus Christ. He knew that idolatry (including mascots and talismans, fortune telling, and seeking to spirits and witches) had many subtle fascinations, whether for the lover seeking the love of his beloved, or the rich man seeking wealth, or the farmer seeking the fruitfulness of his fields, or the young man seeking strength and vigour. And they could seem so innocent. But they were dangerous, for they were the beginning of the slippery slope that led back to being in the arms of the Evil One. They took their eyes and their hearts away from God. And the false prophets too would seek to entangle them again in such things. For that was where all false religion led in the end (Romans 1.18-23). So let them guard themselves against idols, both visible and invisible, and keep themselves only to God.
This was a more personal letter than 1 John and is specifically addressed, possibly to a church which he terms as ‘the elect lady’, with its members as her children. Based on Revelation 19.7-8, this would see the church as the forthcoming bride of Christ. But this sits ill with the mention of ‘children’, even if they are spiritual children.
More likely it may have been directed to a particular lady of influence and position, possibly with a church meeting in her large household who had communicated with him about problems that they were having with false teachers. It is possible that this finally resulted in the sending of 1 John to the churches of the area.
He terms himself ‘the elder’. This appears to have been a title by which the Apostles were known (1 Peter 5.1 - although not exclusively) as we discover from the writings of Papias. An elder was someone who was in authority, and highly respected. To open his letter with ‘the elder’ may have indicated that he knew that all would know who he was because it was a title used uniquely of him when used in the singular without a name. This would point to the Apostle John.
1.1-2 ‘The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not I only, but also all they who know the truth, for the truth's sake which abides in us, and it will be with us for ever.’
This verse is full of ‘truth’. He assures the recipients that his love for them is true, and that so is that of all who know the truth. This latter would suggest that ‘truth’ therefore includes the fact that the recipients too love the truth. They love them because of the truth which abides within all of them, and will be with them for ever.
There may also be in this an indirect reference to the Spirit of truth (14.17; 15.26; 16.13) and the ‘anointing’ that is within them (1 John 2.20, 27).
The emphasis here is that the true people of God need to preserve and live in the truth, because there are false teachers about, and that they should rejoice in being people of the truth, and in the confidence that they will indeed be so for ever. Thus there is the strong suggestion of their need to ensure that they remain in the truth, and not be led astray.
1.3 ‘Grace, mercy, peace shall be with us, from God the Father, and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love.’
The permanent nature of their true faith results from God’s grace, mercy and peace, which will keep them in truth and love, and from the grace, mercy and truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, also coming in truth and love. So truth and love are to be the foundation on which they are established, and this by the grace, mercy and peace of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father. Note the great stress on Jesus’ true Sonship in His close connection with the Father.
‘Grace, mercy, peace shall be with us.’
‘Grace.’ Nothing can be more desirable than to have God looking on us and acting towards us in undeserved love and favour, and this is what is here signified by grace. It is God acting towards us in continual saving power in spite of our undeserving. Thus John wants his hearers to know that he is confident that they will enjoy the continued experience of the grace of God.
‘Mercy.’ As God’s grace flows towards us, he says, so will we receive mercy. That is, forgiveness for our daily sins (1 John 1.7), and His compassion and love towards us in all our failings and weaknesses (1 John 2.2; 4.9-10).
‘Peace.’ Peace results from grace and mercy, but this kind of peace is also God’s gift, flowing from Him to us. Once we know that we are right with God, and experience His graciousness towards us, we have peace with God (Romans 5.1) and enjoy such peace, prosperity and success of spirit that our hearts can only overflow. For however things may seem to smile on us, if God is not pleased with us, we cannot fully know peace. The very foundation then of peace in our hearts is the favour of God, by which we enjoy true and genuine prosperity of spirit through the work of His Spirit, and find the peace of God which passes all understanding guarding our thoughts and hearts (Philippians 4.7). And this is what John wished for, and prayed for, for these Christians in this true Christian church.
‘Shall be with us.’ John speaks with quiet confidence. He has no doubt that the Father, and Jesus Christ, the true Son of the Father, will abound towards them in gracious, powerful and loving activity, thus establishing them in truth and love. Note the two aspects of church life that mattered. First truth, for love is meaningless without truth, and then love flowing from, and resulting from, that truth. As they know the One Who is light and walk in that true light, so will they love one another (1 John 1.5-7).
The conjunction of Jesus with the Father as ‘the Son of the Father’, emphasises His Oneness with the Father on the divine side of reality.
1.4 ‘I rejoice greatly that I have found of your children walking in truth, even as we received commandment from the Father.’
This does not necessarily mean that some were not walking according to the truth, only that he himself did not know all her children. But the point is that those whom he did know walked in the truth. And this was the truth commanded by the Father. In 1 John 3.23 we are told that ‘this is His commandment that we should believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ’. It is this truth that is to be the foundation of their whole faith, and will result in loving one another, which is the parallel commandment. By this he emphasises the close relationship established by the Father with His Son in the work of salvation.
1.5-6 ‘And now I beseech you, lady, not as though I wrote to you a new commandment, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we should walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, even as you heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.’
He then moves on from faith and trust in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, to the further aspect of the commandment that they love one another. This was the new commandment (John 13.34), but he emphasises that it is not new in the sense of novel and recent, for it was given by Jesus Christ and known by them from the beginning of their Christian lives. This is no novelty such as the false prophets were presenting. It is based soundly in the words of Jesus Christ.
‘And this is love, that we should walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, even as you heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it.’ To walk after His commandments is to walk in the light (1 John 1.7). He stresses that this love, which results from walking in the light, involves obeying God’s and Christ’s commandments. Indeed these were centred in the reality of love, for they were to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength (Deuteronomy 6.5-6), and their neighbour as themselves (Leviticus 19.18), which would be revealed in the way they lived their lives. Those who did such things would live in them (Leviticus 18.5; Ezekiel 20.11). Their eternal life was given by the Father through His Son (1 John 5.11-12), but it involved living lives pleasing to Him because we are in Him that is true (1 John 5.20), and Jesus had made clear that they should walk in them (John 14.15). These are the commandments given by God and expanded and explained by Jesus (e.g. Matthew 5-7).
1.7 ‘For many deceivers are gone forth into the world, even those who do not confess that Jesus Christ comes in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.’
Mention is now made of those whom they should guard against, the deceivers, those who deny that Jesus the Christ came in the flesh as a human being. These are the deceivers and the antichrist (1 John 2.18-21). They set up someone else as the Christ in the place of Jesus, a Christ who did not come as true human and die on the cross, and thereby they seek to deceive true believers. In our day this is partly true of Islam, who reduce Jesus, even though they call Him Messiah, and deny His death. And they may well prove to produce the final Antichrist. And one of the ways by which they are known is that they do not love the Son, do not love the truth as it is in Jesus, do not love His commandments, and do not love His true people.
Note that these deceivers have gone forth into ‘the world’ in contrast with the church. They have withdrawn from the true fellowship of the people of God. ‘They went out from us because they were not of us’ (1 John 2.19).
1.8-9 ‘Look to yourselves, that you do not lose the things which we have wrought, but that you receive a full reward. Whoever goes onward and abides not in the teaching of Christ, has not God. He who abides in the teaching, the same has both the Father and the Son.’
So the warning goes out to ‘watch out’. They are to look to themselves so that they retain the truth and live in it, lest they lose what the faithful preachers of the truth have wrought in them. Not that he feared that they would. He knew that God was at work in them to will and to do of His good pleasure. But he wanted them to ensure that they worked it out with greatest care (Philippians 2.13), for he did not want them to lose their full reward. This is a rare reference for John rarely speaks of the coming reward, as he rarely speaks of the second coming, but compare 1 John 3.3, which demonstrates his emphasis on both. Those who were not faithful as they were, will lose the possibility of likeness with Christ.
‘Whoever goes onward and abides not in the teaching of the Christ, has not God. He who abides in the teaching, the same has both the Father and the Son.’ Going on in a general way is not enough, they must abide in the true teaching concerning the Christ, otherwise it will be evidence that they do not have God. That is, it will mean that they do not know the truth about Him and do not have Him abiding in them. For they cannot have the Father without the Son. Those who do abide in His teaching receive and enjoy both Father and Son. It is not possible to have the One without the Other.
1.10-11 ‘If any one comes to you, and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and give him no greeting, for he who gives him greeting partakes in his evil works.’
The matter has in fact become so serious that those who are clearly deceivers in this way, and do not teach this truth, must not be invited into their house. He must not be welcomed in the church as a brother. He must not be greeted as a brother. To do either would be to be participants with such in their evil behaviour.
The emphasis here is on not welcoming false teachers in such a way as to give some the impression that they are of the truth. By doing so they would be assisting their deception. Compare Titus 3.10. It does not mean that they should not be ‘loved’ when in need, only that they should not be welcomed as though they were true brethren.
1.12 ‘Having many things to write to you, I would not write them with paper and ink. But I hope to come to you, and to speak face to face, that your joy may be made full.’
He has much more to say, but will wait until he sees them face to face. For he is hoping to come to them and make their joy full. With such true believers he has no doubt of his welcome.
1.13 ‘The children of your elect sister salute you.’
This may signify the members of a sister church. Or it may signify that both sisters were of powerful families and had churches in their households. Either way the greeting goes from the one to the other.
This was more of a personal letter to a beloved friend and ‘child’. Gaius was a humble church member who, in the face of powerful opposition from within the church, welcomed true men of God who came from outside, and gave them hospitality. He probably thought nothing further of it. But he became a glorious example which would echo through the ages when the important people (in their own eyes) of the church were forgotten. For he gave the equivalent of a cup of cold water in the name of the Messiah (Matthew 10.42).
John had a pastor’s heart and he felt that Gaius needed encouraging. There was a leader in the church in that region called Diotrephes who was separatist, and trying to keep his section of the church for himself. He sought to dissuade the church members connected with him from welcoming travelling preachers, even though they were true men of God. John writes to spur Gaius on in his godly behaviour.
1.1 ‘The elder to Gaius the beloved, whom I love in truth.’
The writer again calls himself ‘the Elder’. As with 2 John the impression is given that all would know who was meant. He was not just one of many elders but seen as unique. There is no real reason for denying that it is the Apostle John, who as we know from John’s Gospel, preferred not to push his name forward. He was probably delighted with a term that, as used by his fellow-believers, indicated warm affection as well as respect.
Gaius, to whom the letter is addressed, is a man of the truth, and John loves him truly because he is of the truth. He is indeed ‘beloved by’ John. Gaius is ‘loved in truth’. This can mean truly loved, or loved as one who is of the truth. Or perhaps John intended it to have the double meaning. A man of true faith loved in truth. Certainly the implication of both is there.
1.2 ‘ Beloved, I pray that in all things you may prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.’
He knows that Gaius’ soul prospers. That is a good testimony to have. He prays that equally his life and health might prosper in every way, that God might ensure that life would treat him well. It may well be that Gaius suffered from physical problems, and that he had these especially in mind. Or John may have had in mind that those who provide for others will find themselves provided for. What a man sows, especially in the name of Christ, he will reap (Galatians 6.7-8)
1.3-4 ‘For I rejoiced greatly, when brethren came and bore witness to your truth, even as you walk in truth. Greater joy have I none than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.’
But his greatest rejoicing is in that Gaius walks in the truth. John is often called the Apostle of ‘love’ but he always lays great stress on ‘truth’. His rejoicing was because Gaius walked in the truth, because he walked in the light with God (1 John 1.5-7). Thus he was true both in belief, in understanding and in behaviour. And when others came to John from where Gaius lived, all bore testimony to his glowing Christian life, and to the fact that he was a man of the truth. And especially that he knew the truth about Jesus as both God and man, and Saviour, and lived accordingly. This was one reason why John loved him.
1.5-7 ‘Beloved, you do a faithful work in whatever you do towards those who are brethren and strangers withal, who bore witness to your love before the church, whom you will do well to set forward on their journey worthily of God, because for the sake of the Name they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles.’
Gaius clearly welcomed travelling preachers who were of the truth, even if they were strangers, and indeed all Christians who came to his church as visitors from a distance. He was a man of great hospitality because of his love for Christ. He welcomed them because they went forth in the Name of Christ Jesus. And he was to be commended for it as a faithful servant of Christ, for He did it in Christ’s name. He gave not only a cup of cold water (Matthew 10.42), but also abundantly.
Early Christian preachers normally received material support from other believers (compare Acts 20.35; 1 Corinthians 9.14; 1 Thessalonians 3.7-9), or alternatively like Paul, they supported themselves. They did not solicit funds from unbelievers (compare Matthew 10.8; 2 Corinthians 12.14; 1 Thessalonians 2.9). They relied on God, and on God’s people. "Gentiles" was a general term for unbelievers, for Christians were no longer Gentiles. They were of the true faith. They were ‘sons of Abraham’ and of the new Israel (Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Ephesians 2.12-22; Revelation 7.1-8).
‘You do a faithful work in whatever you do.’ What a testimony Gaius had. He was totally reliable, absolutely dependable, thorough, and set to show God how faithful he was because he loved Him. And this was especially revealed in his attitude towards hospitality for those who preached the truth who came from a distance, at a time when most who were in his church group were set against such, and his actions would be disapproved of. He sought the favour of God and not the favour of men.
‘Towards brethren and strangers.’ This may indicate two sets of people, showing that he did not discriminate, but may well signify the same people. They were true men of God, but they came from outside the area and were therefore looked on with suspicion by many. They were ‘foreigners’. Yet they should have been received with the love of Christ, and they were, by Gaius.
‘Who bore witness to your love before the church.’ This probably means before their own church when they arrived back home. All spoke of how Gaius had welcomed them when others had treated them coldly. Although when given the opportunity they no doubt spoke well of Gaius before his own church. He was well spoken of everywhere.
‘Whom you will do well to set forward on their journey worthily of God, because for the sake of the Name they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles.’ But he was right in what he did. The men were worthy of Gaius’ good treatment. They were true brethren, and should be treated with honour, because in Jesus’ name they went forward, living by faith in the promises of God, and sought no charity. They sought only the honour of Jesus Christ, and were willing to suffer for His name’s sake.
1.8 ‘We therefore ought to welcome such, that we may be fellow-workers for the truth.’
It was right that these travelling preachers should be welcomed and given hospitality, because of Whose they were, and by doing so Gaius had a part in their ministry. He was a fellow-worker with them in the truth. All may not be able to preach, but all can have a part in the ministry of such people by their continual support. It was the widow who gave her pittance who was especially honoured by God, not the wealthy donors in the Temple, for she gave of her all (Mark 12.41-44). One cup of cold water rightly given can quench the thirst of Heaven.
1.9-10 ‘I wrote somewhat to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, receives us not. Therefore, if I come, I will bring to remembrance his works which he does, prating against us with wicked words. And not content with that, nor does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who would and casts them out of the church.’
Things were not as well as they could be in Gaius’ church grouping. It is clear that Diotrephes, who was a prominent church leader, loved to be seen as important, and to be honoured and feted, and this probably contributed to his not wanting outsiders coming and taking over the ministry, and stealing some of his glory. He wanted no interference in his church, even from the Apostle John, and found fault with all who came from outside. It is probable that ‘receives us not’ refers to the lack of welcome John’s letter received. And most of the church in which he ministered seem to have sided with him. Such is the danger when one man becomes pre-eminent. To receive honour is always a dangerous thing for a man who would please God, for he soon begins to see himself as important, and then his usefulness is diminished.
There is here no suggestion of false teaching. Diotrephes appears to have taught the truth. It may even partly have been because he was afraid of false teachers that he behaved as he did. But this meant that he had cut his church off from the remainder of the worldwide church. He was clearly a strong character and was able to carry men along with him. That he was not fully successful is evidenced by Gaius. There were some still willing to stand up to him.
The church would be split up into smaller groups as was necessary in those days, for not all could meet centrally, so Diotrephes’ influence may only have affected the section he ministered to and not the whole church, but he was clearly influential.
But John’s charge against him is also that he not only himself refused hospitality to travelling preachers of the truth, including strangers, but forbade his church to offer it either. Any travelling preachers were to be rejected. Indeed had it not been for Gaius true men of God would have had nowhere to go.
It is probable that the exclusion from the church refers to the travelling preachers and not the church members. But it is possible that Diotrephes had made discipline so strict that he actually expelled church members for disobedience.
It should be noted, however, that John is confident that when he visits the church he and his authority will be welcomed. (He probably only mentions this to encourage Gaius and give him hope of the resolution of a miserable situation). The church was not wholly lost to Christ. He felt that the problem was one that could be dealt with by firm discipline.
1.11 ‘Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God. He who does evil has not seen God.’
Meanwhile Gaius is to continue in goodness. As with all true Christians he must take his example from Christ, imitating what is good and not what is evil. For being a Christian, and doing good, go together. Those who do good are of God. But those who do evil have not seen God. They cannot have, for God is light, and had they seen Him they would have repented. John is quite clear. You will know men by their fruits. He knew nothing of a salvation that did not produce fruit.
1.12 ‘Demetrius has the witness of all, and of the truth itself. Yes, we also bear witness: and you know that our witness is true.’
Demetrius may have been another church leader, or a more probably a visiting preacher, a representative of John, and he may well also have been the letter bearer. He too is a man who adorns the truth, witnessed to by all. He is to be welcomed. Even John bears witness to his godliness. And Gaius can know that his testimony is reliable. Thus he can know that he can place complete confidence in Demetrius. His coming would give Gaius comfort at a distressful time. John is very practical as well as spiritual.
1.13 ‘I had many things to write to you, but I am unwilling to write them to you with ink and pen, but I hope shortly to see you, and we shall speak face to face.’
We saw the same idea in 2 John 1.12. John preferred face to face contact. He probably felt that long letters were too impersonal. Possibly both letters were written around the same time and went with Demetrius to the same area.
1.13b ‘Peace be to you. The friends salute you. Salute the friends by name.’
He finishes with a greeting of peace, a common ancient greeting among the Jews. ‘The friends’ probably signifies ‘the brethren’ at John’s end with a hint that these are friendly towards Gaius even if Diotrephes is not, and the other ‘friends’ at Gaius’ end are presumably those who still retain friendly relations with John. John clearly felt that he could not pass on salutations to those who were opposing him, as it might have caused unnecessary nastiness. There is here an indication of his tact. To have used ‘brethren’ of his own church would have emphasised the difference when he used ‘friends’ of those at Gaius’ end, and he did not want to do that, so he called his brethren ‘friends’ as well. He may have had in mind John 15:13-15, ‘you are my friends if you do what I command you.’ Diotrephes was definitely not ‘friendly’.
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