John’s first epistle can make some of us uncomfortable. His use of stark contrasts and hyperbole doesn’t leave much room for shades of gray. For example, we can be either children of the devil who keep on sinning or children of God who practice righteousness (1Jn 3:9-10). Which one are you? According to John, you aren’t allowed to say a child of God who occasionally sins. He rarely permits that kind of exception.
Compare John’s style to that of his contemporaries, namely, Paul. Unlike John, Paul frequently acknowledges hypothetical arguments against his teachings and interjects potential caveats. After refuting antinomianism in his letter to the Romans, he spends half a chapter explaining that even slaves of God can serve the law of sin (Ro 6:22; 7:25). John, on the other hand, wants us to confess our sins, but never think that God’s born-again people will keep on sinning (1Jn 1:9; 3:6). In his theological equation, he doesn’t bother to include our perpetual wresting match with the flesh.
John’s rhetorical method may also give us trouble if we’re more accustomed to Paul’s linear approach. Paul is systematic in the way he builds a case point by point. His writings are so clear and smooth that we can almost picture the outline from which he worked.
John prefers circles over straight lines. In the first chapter, he declares, “This is the message” (1Jn 1:5). Then, he repeats himself in chapter three, saying, “For this is the message,” before starting all over again (1Jn 3:11). He’s redundant for the purpose of amplification. In case you didn’t understand the first time, let me explain it again using slightly different terms. In his first sermonette, God is light (1Jn 1:5). In the second, God is love (1Jn 4:8).
Regardless of style, 1 John has an explicit purpose. Ultimately, the apostle, and I do believe the author is none other than John the apostle, wants those who believe in the name of the Son of God to also know that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). He may tackle other subjects in this epistle such as antichrists and false prophets, but his primary audience is genuine Christians and his objective is to provide an assurance of salvation (1Jn 2:18; 4:1).
First John is essentially a follow-up to John’s Gospel. When he chronicled the life and ministry of the Messiah, he did so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (Jn 20:31).
Now that John is older and writing to second, possibly third-generation Christians, he feels it is his apostolic responsibility to instill confidence in these believers. Jesus has been gone fifty years. Greek philosophies and antithetical teachings are pouring into the church, slowly drowning the truth of the gospel. Nearing the end of the first century, John may be the only apostle left to remind everyone what they first believed and should still believe about Christ and his work.
If we were to chip away at the truth, removing just a piece here and there, our hope for eternal life would disappear with it. Deny the deity of Jesus, for instance, and he’s no longer qualified to be the propitiation for our sins (1Jn 2:2). Deny that Christ has come in the flesh, and we’re left with the same problem (1Jn 4:2). One error means he was not born without sin while the other implies he was not born under the law (Heb 4:15; Gal 4:4). Either way, we make Jesus a fraud and condemn ourselves all over again as though the Savior never came.
Augustine once said, “When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.” John sees the simple truths of the Christian faith becoming obscured by time and false brothers, leading to fears, doubts, and the loss of joy within the church.
Perhaps you remember playing the telephone game in school. The teacher would whisper a brief message into the ear of a student who whispered it to the kid next to him. As it made its way through the entire class, words got lost, replaced, and added. The class clown might intentionally tweak the message to prove his wit and make others laugh. By the time it reached the back row, the teacher could hardly recognize her original words in what she hears.
The church has played the telephone game for several decades now without the help of a complete New Testament to guide them. Vital points of doctrine aren’t as sharp as they used to be, and the church’s ethical vigor has grown weak. Antichrists have come into the church disguised as brethren, spreading lies using the devil’s subtle tactics, and went out again (1Jn 2:18-19). The last living apostle feels he must restore black-and-white clarity to the word of life, not to mention hope to those disturbed believers who have witnessed the exodus of their friends (1Jn 1:1). Will I be next? they wonder. Will I also depart from the faith? Am I truly saved?
John responds with a series of emphatic statements and absolute truths. Accuse him of dogmatism, and he’ll say, “Thank you for the compliment.” He refuses to make even the slightest concession, not that he should.
He also offers several tests by which professing Christians can, as Paul said, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2Co 13:5). What do you believe about Jesus? How has he transformed your life? How do you feel about others in the church? These questions and John’s subsequent commentary move us to reflect on everything from our theology to our commitment to Christ. In turn, we find either assurance of our salvation or evidence that our faith is artificial.
Did I mention 1 John can make some of us uncomfortable?
John’s somewhat brazen, uncompromising approach may seem uncharacteristic of the disciple whom Jesus loved (Jn 13:23). We’re prone to think of him as an always-gentle spirit tenderly resting his head on Christ’s bosom. Thanks to Renaissance paintings, we picture a young man with soft skin and delicate features. We’re drawn to the mild-mannered apostle who writes, “God is love” (1Jn 4:8). Perhaps we’ve forgotten that he also teaches, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1Jn 4:20).
These days, we have a terrible habit of pitting love and truth against each other as though they are mutually exclusive. We want our pastors to wear rose-colored glasses and smile as they affirm just enough of God’s word to make everyone feel good about themselves. Many preachers will gladly oblige because life in the ministry is much easier when you aren’t making enemies.
Making enemies has always been the least of John’s concerns. We are talking about the man who, along with his brother, James, earned for themselves the nickname, Sons of Thunder (Mk 3:17). Even before they had an opportunity to validate the title, Jesus saw something in their personalities to suggest they were bold to the point of destructive. From the beginning, John was a zealous warrior for the truth.
To prove his devotion, he once made it his personal mission to stop someone casting out demons in Christ’s name (Lk 9:49). He even bragged to Jesus about his supposed accomplishment, believing anyone who was not a member of the elite Twelve could not or perhaps should not perform such wonders (Mt 10:1). Jesus was quick to correct him, saying, ”Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:50).
Shortly after, James and John were ready to wipe a Samaritan village off the face of the planet for a single offense. When the people refused to receive Christ into their homes because he was a Jew, John and his brother asked the Lord, ”Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:53-54). I doubt many pastor search committees would include John on their short list of candidates.
Polycarp, a student of John himself, tells the story of “John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus [a heretic] within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing.” Polycarp’s second-century testimony quotes the apostle as shouting, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.”
Passion for the truth as well as hatred of heresy are godly attributes. God certainly calls his people to walk … with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, but never at the expense of truth (Eph 4:1-2). To sacrifice truth for the sake of unity, love, or anything else is to deny Christ who is the truth (Jn 14:6).
John never lost his thunderous nature. Christ and his Spirit merely refined it.
In his old age, John is just as willing to draw his sword, that is, the word of God as ever (Eph 6:17). He’ll swing it at anyone or anything possessing the spirit of error (1Jn 4:6). Only now he’s learned to wield his weapon with greater precision. Like a skilled surgeon in the operating room, his first epistle slices distinct lines between light and darkness, truth and error, as well as those from the world and those from God (1Jn 1:5; 4:5-6).
Yet no book of the New Testament speaks of love more than 1 John. Evidently, John paid close attention to Jesus’s words during their last evening together (Jn 13-17). He echos and further expounds on the Savior’s new commandment to love one another (Jn 13:34; 1Jn 2:7-11). Seven times he addresses his readers as little children as though he thinks of himself as a concerned father (1Jn 2:1; 12; 28; 3:7; 18; 4:4; 5:21). Serving as an example for all of us to follow, he displays a healthy balance of both boldness and tender affection.
Truth and love are not mutually exclusive. As John proves, one can hardly exist without the other.
What better place for the apostle to begin than the beginning? (1Jn 1:1). John is a man after my own heart, skipping personal introductions to address the most crucial matter at hand, that is, the word of life. I’ve never liked the way preachers sometimes hesitate at the start of a sermon. Pastor, we don’t mind a shorter message if it means avoiding ten minutes of story time before we get to the biblical text.
The true identity of Christ is at stake. If historical tradition is correct, John is in Ephesus as he writes this letter. Thirty years before, Paul warned the Ephesian elders, ”Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Ac 20:29-30). Paul’s prophecy has become reality, and John wastes no time untangling the mess with his direct, affirmative style.
Though it’s difficult to prove, the presence of Gnosticism, at least its earliest forms, appears evident. Pagan mysticism mixed with Greek philosophy sprinkled on apostolic orthodoxy was an unhealthy recipe for Christology. Gnosticism claimed a higher knowledge of spiritual things. The way of salvation was practically a secret, requiring special revelation to see and comprehend. The effects were damning because these teachings undermined the person and work of Jesus by stripping him of his humanity.
Gnostics believed all physical matter is inherently evil while everything spiritual is good. This philosophical dualism forced the Gnostic Christian, not that such a person can even exist, to deny that the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us, was in the beginning … with God, and … was God (Jn 1:14; 1). A Gnostic could tip his hat to Christ’s deity, yet he had no choice but to find creative ways around his incarnation. If flesh is evil, he thought, then God could not have come in the flesh.
The solution for some was simple enough. They assumed Jesus’s body was little more than a divine magic trick, a spiritual illusion. The Savior appeared to be in human form, but his physical presence wasn’t real (Php 2:8). Others were a bit more clever. They argued Jesus was a genuine man, but the Spirit of Christ descended on him only after his baptism and left again just before his crucifixion. Either version is a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who … want to distort the gospel of Christ (Gal 1:6-7).
Let them be accursed (Gal 1:9). Let them be thrown out and utterly destroyed.
These discussions of the God-man are not trivial debates over semantics. Our hope of eternal life is entirely dependent on:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
To say he is not God is to make him an ordinary sinner like every other person born into this world. To say he is not human is to remove him from the experiences, namely, being born under the law, which qualified him to redeem those who were also under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:4-5).
Given the situation in and around ancient Ephesus, I’m not surprised at all by John’s clear declaration concerning the word of life at the very start of this epistle (1Jn 1:1). Jesus, who is the Word and the life, is the gospel itself (Jn 1:1; 14:6). He is the eternal life to which the apostles once testified and proclaimed throughout the known world (1Jn 1:2).
There may be more to the message of redemption than the identity of Christ—a call to believe and repent, for example—but none of it matters if Jesus isn’t who the Bible says he is: fully God and fully human.
Though the Gnostics may not have denied Jesus’s deity, John knows many antichrists have come into the church who do, in fact, deny that Jesus is the Christ (1Jn 2:18; 22). Consequently, they also deny God the Father because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30). Perhaps he intends for the very first phrase of this epistle to remind everyone of the eternal, unchangeable person and work of Christ.
“That which was from the beginning,” he writes, referring to the word of life (1Jn 1:1). Before all else, whether he addresses believers or unbelievers, John is determined to establish that Jesus of Nazareth is YHWH, the one to whom we must turn to be saved (Isa 45:22). In his Gospel, which John wrote so the unconverted may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he begins with a similar, albeit longer introduction (Jn 20:31).
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)
You’ll notice these themes of life and light run throughout 1 John as well. We can’t avoid referencing John’s Gospel as we study his epistle.
The word of life, or the Word of life if you prefer, is none other than God himself (1Jn 1:1). The term encompasses the Father, the Son, and the Spirit as well as their sovereign works, not to mention their message to the world.
More to John’s point, the word of life is both permanent and unalterable (1Jn 1:1). It is I AM WHO I AM (Ex 3:14). Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8). Neither Christ nor the gospel will ever change. Anyone attempting to tweak what the apostles taught are trying to deceive you (1Jn 2:26). Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world (1Jn 4:1).
John firmly believes that in Jesus the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9). No one will ever convince him otherwise since he saw Christ’s glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). Furthermore, the Gnostics will never persuade him that Christ wasn’t a real human being as well.
“We have heard [the word of life],” John writes (1Jn 1:1). “We have seen him with our eyes. We looked upon him and touched him with our hands.”
The first generation of disciples heard Christ’s sermons in person. They received his private instructions. For three years, they watched him with their own eyes. Day after day, they gazed at his person as they witnessed his displays of supernatural power. They even touched his flesh. After his resurrection, Jesus invited them to touch him and see, saying, ”A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Lk 24:39). John is well known as the one who also had leaned back against him during their last supper together (Jn 21:20).
The message of eternal life through the one and only God-man, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, is what John says was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you” (1Jn 1:2). Jesus was with the Father from the very beginning and later made manifest to John, the other apostles, and all of those earliest disciples when the Word became flesh and dwelt among them (Jn 1:14).
Writing now to Christians who have not heard, seen, or touched Immanuel in person, he proclaims the word of life once again, which is why he uses the pronouns we, us, and you (1Jn 1:1; Mt 1:23). We, those who were there, want you, those who weren’t, to have certainty about Christ and eternal salvation.
“Never mind the vain philosophies and lies you’ve heard,” John implies by this introduction. “The simple gospel of Jesus Christ remains what it was from the beginning. I know because I was with Christ when he walked this earth. The one who is both God and man provides eternal life because he is both God and man.”
As Alexander MacLaren once said, “The gospel is not speculation but fact. It is truth, because it is the record of a Person who is the Truth.”
To be clear, the word of life is not fodder for academic exercise (1Jn 1:1). John is not affirming the true Christ, his identity, and his gospel to fuel the intrigue of philosophers or the very religious (Ac 17:18; 22). He’s not attempting to add one more perspective to a melting pot of empty deceit and human tradition (Col 2:8). His desire is to replace them entirely with the only message that can bring us into fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1Jn 1:3).
Again, John’s first epistle is designed to help those who believe in the name of the Son of God to know with certainty that you have eternal life (1Jn 5:13). Such confidence cannot exist if our faith is built on every wind of doctrine, human cunning, and man’s deceitful schemes (Eph 4:14). Nothing short of the truth will provide believers a sense of security.
Having heard, seen, and touched the word of life in the flesh, John and those earliest disciples already knew what it meant to have fellowship with God and one another (1Jn 1:1). But first-generation Christians were not members of an elite group with an exclusive right to enjoy intimate union with God and his people. Jesus told his apostle, Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (Jn 20:29).
John extends the same privilege to those who have not seen, saying, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us” (Jn 20:29; 1Jn 1:3).
It’s a shame that fellowship has lost much of its meaning today. We hear that word and think of fluorescent-lit rooms with folding chairs and stale coffee served from metal urns. We think of the hand-shaking and small talk that occurs five minutes before and after our Sunday worship.
John, on the other hand, is referring to authentic partnership. Drawn and bound together by more than common beliefs, genuine Christians share one life together. He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him and, consequently, one another (1Co 6:17). Compare the mutual life and love of the early church to what many of us may think of as fellowship today.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. (Ac 2:42; 44-47)
Salvation is more than a mental awareness of Jesus and his gospel. Even the demons believe that much (Jas 2:19). The church is more than a social club of like-minded people. It is the body of Christ (1Co 12:27). God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose (1Co 12:18). He saves us to experience and enjoy supernatural intimacy with him, his Son Jesus Christ, and one another (1Jn 1:3).
Christ defines eternal life this way: “To know … the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent” (Jn 17:3). He uses an old idiom, know, which the Jews applied to the physical relationship between a husband and his wife. For instance, Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived (Ge 4:1). To know God is be profoundly connected to him by affectionate trust and intimacy.
As a natural extension of our fellowship … with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ, we are joined and held together to one another (Eph 4:16).
Unfortunately, some Christians attempt to travel the road to heaven alone. I’ve heard more than a few people say, “I believe in Christ, not religion,” as they protest church attendance. John wouldn’t hesitate to highlight the contradiction of their statement. He says, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1Jn 4:21). How can we possibly love our brother if we’re never with him?
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Once we’ve joined ourselves to the church, we also have to become an integral part of it. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Nobody can do as much damage to the church of God as the man who is within its walls, but not within its life.” Only after we plunge ourselves into the church’s shared life can we appreciate the eternal life to which God calls us (1Jn 1:1-2).
All roads lead to consummate joy, a complete satisfaction that can’t be undermined by any external circumstance. The world may throw us in prison, and we’ll keep praying and singing hymns to God (Ac 16:25). After all, Jesus promised to give his disciples not only his divine joy, but also a joy that may be full (Jn 15:11). Likewise, John writes this letter so that our joy may be complete (1Jn 1:4).
We live in a hedonistic society that is practically amusing itself to death. In the United States, the so-called American dream is to satisfy ourselves with material comforts and entertainment to the point we can say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing (Rev 3:17). To those who embrace that philosophy, Christ warns, ”I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). We are better off broke and suffering than healthy and wealthy.
The Christian’s joy transcends any condition which we may find ourselves. It is the only kind of joy able to satisfy our entire person from our mind to our desires. Put another way, the word of life is the secret to thorough contentment (1Jn 1:1; Php 4:12).
Yet John proposes three fundamental caveats throughout this epistle. To obtain the joy of Christ and know we are saved, we must believe the truth, obey God’s commandments, and love one another.