The apostle John was living at the close of the first century when he wrote the three letters by his name and then the book of Revelation. As we saw last time, the church that Jesus had founded was under attack from Gnostic teachers from without. John found it necessary to expose their error by explaining where truth, love and light really reside.
In the remainder of his first letter, he discussed such disruption as showing that the end times had begun and that human society would have to be transformed. His second and third letters also cover issues that relate to the end of the age, as does the apocalyptic book of Revelation.
Convinced that the end must be close because false teachers had multiplied and some of the believers were hearing their deceptive ideas, John issued a warning and a reminder of the truth: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
Confusion over teaching is a mark of the end times. Generally false teachers do not sound like deceivers. John is saying that the final supreme example of a false teacher known as Antichrist, or “anti-Christ,” will yet come. But because that event is still in the future and falsehood is pandemic in the world’s system, therefore antichrists (plural), precursors of the ultimate false teacher, will proliferate in the meantime. Sometimes they are even within the Church for a while: “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 it might become plain that they all are not of us” (verse 19). Such people will come and go while the Church continues on.
What is the intention of an antichrist? It is surely to lead people away from Christ by deception. To offset any temptation to follow, John encourages his readers by reminding them of their calling and their acquired spiritual benefits. First, it is the Holy Spirit that has opened their minds to truth. He points out further that anyone who comes as a teacher and denies that Jesus is the Christ also denies the Father and is not on Their spiritual wavelength at all (verses 20–23).
It is important under such attacks to recall foundational teaching: “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” John goes on to say that the anointing of the Holy Spirit protects and informs the mind against falsehood. And so the believer is “to abide” in Christ, that is to say, to continue to live in Him, to remain with the Master (verses 24–27).
Continuing that relationship will result in confidence at Christ’s return: “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness [or habitually lives the right way] has been born of him” (verses 28–29). The practice of right living, going the right way, separates the true follower from the Gnostic, who is a believer in falsehoods and who, as a result, habitually lives the wrong way.
The truth is that God indeed specifically calls believers and imparts right knowledge. But this is also one of the reasons they go unrecognized in the world. A lack of acquaintance with God and His way means that those who don’t follow Him cannot recognize those who do (1 John 3:1).
The future eternal form of God’s people is as yet unknown. But as John points out, they will be like the resurrected returning Christ: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” This knowledge should lead the believer to live a life of continuous spiritual improvement (verses 2–3).
John compares this with the activities of the one who is not dedicated to following God’s way. That person is in effect a child of the adversary and habitually lives outside God’s law of life. Sin is defined as living outside of law, and as John points out, Christ died so that sin can be forgiven: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (verses 4–5). The believer does not practice a wrong way of life. The choice is to be a child of God or a child of the arch-deceiver, the devil, whose works Christ came to annul: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. . . . Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (verses 6–9).
Summarizing, John reminds his readers that the original way of right living taught by Christ included love of neighbor. He says, “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (verse 10).
To explain more about brotherly love from God’s perspective, John takes his audience all the way back to the beginning of human civilization: “For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (verses 11–12).
Envy of his brother’s right living and guilt over his own failures caused Cain to murder his brother. It is always that way. Evil cannot bear righteousness. Therefore “do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (verses 13–15).
Christ’s willingness to die for others should motivate us to sacrifice for the good of others. This defines godly love: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (verses 16–18). John emphasizes that the practical meaning of loving rather than hating our brothers and sisters is that we provide for their needs. And as John’s fellow apostle Paul pointed out years earlier, this reaching out includes all humanity—first the Church and then everyone else (Galatians 6:10).
“This is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
Now John brings what he has said thus far to a conclusion. He notes that genuine love for believing brothers and sisters should give us confidence before God. We do not need to fear, because God is ready to forgive us and also to bless us for living according to His commandments and believing in Christ (1 John 3:19–24).
Expanding on Basic Teachings
John introduces the Spirit of God in preparation for what he is going to expand on next: how to distinguish God’s Spirit from the spirit of antichrist, and what the Spirit of God produces in people.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is important in times of confusion over beliefs to know how to discern between truth and error. One way in respect of Christ, says John, is to determine whether a person accepts that He came from God and lived as a human being: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (verses 2–3a). If there is denial of Christ coming in the flesh, then “this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (verse 3b).
John reinforces the fact that the Church knows the truth, and that the world knows its own, by saying, “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (verses 4–6).
John introduces the next section with the thought that because God loves His children, they should love each other. One of the reasons John has been called the apostle of love is that he writes so much about it. Yet he, along with his brother, was initially named by Christ a “son of thunder.” We see evidence in his life of how God’s Spirit at work in people moulds and changes them over time, if they allow it to work. John became the apostle of love: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (verses 7–8).
“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
God’s love for humanity was made plain by His willingness to send His only Son to pay the penalty for human sin by sacrificing His life in our place. If God can show love to that degree, should we not be able to love each other in this life (verses 9–11)?
John makes it clear that although no one has seen God, He is evident in the love that is being perfected in His people. This is a by-product of His Spirit at work. Further, John knew that his belief in Jesus Christ was based on his personal experience as an eyewitness: “And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (verses 12–15).
Returning to the theme of love and its connection with God and the blessing of a mind free of guilt and fear, John writes: “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world” (verses 16–17). Jesus remains steadfast in the Father’s love, and believers do too. This should give confidence as they live life in this world. There is no need for fear on this basis, because “perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” John adds, “We love because he first loved us” (verses 18–19).
He continues by pointing out the hypocrisy of claiming to love God yet hating neighbor: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (verses 20–21).
Defining the love of God, the apostle relates it to belief in Christ as God’s Son, as well as to commandment keeping: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:1–3). Though John is known as the apostle of love, he is not against law. In fact, he defines love in terms of commandment keeping.
Next he notes that the people of God are uniquely equipped to overcome the effects of living in this world cut off from God, because they have God’s commands, God’s Son and God’s faith (verses 4–5).
Human, Yet Born of God
Returning to the theme that Christ came into the world and died as a human being and as the Son of God—as opposed to Gnostic teaching to the contrary—John says next: “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit . . . testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (verse 6).
It’s important to say here that this is not a discussion about the Trinity. That discussion was not part of John’s thinking or indeed of New Testament thinking. Notice the translation that follows: “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (verses 7–8). That’s to say that Jesus—as man yet also Son of God—is attested to by the Holy Spirit and thus there is agreement. This is spiritual knowledge, not human ideas. So John adds in the context of Gnostic teaching, “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater. . . . Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (verses 9–12). Nonbelievers do not have the possibility of eternal life unless at some point they come to believe.
All of this tells us that it is God who has borne witness that Jesus is His Son who died, and that the Spirit of God convicts us of that if we are willing to listen to God, not men. Our eternal life depends on acceptance of Christ’s submission to death on our behalf and of His resurrection by God.
In conclusion John says: “I write these things [the letter’s contents] to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (verse 13). This summation of intent corresponds with John’s comment in the Gospel: “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
Those who have a relationship with the Father will be able to ask for His help in many ways. The believer has the benefit of knowing that God hears prayers and will answer, including prayers for other brothers and sisters, who can repent of their sins and thus be forgiven: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death” (verses 14–16a). This is not to say that God can forgive all sin, as John clarifies next. There are those who will not repent and therefore cannot have forgiveness extended to them. This is known as unpardonable sin: “There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that” (verse 16b). Defining sin, yet showing that forgiveness is possible for those who will repent and change, John adds: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death” (verse 17).
John concludes his first letter with three statements about what is important to know. The Gnostics claimed access to secret and superior knowledge. John has shown that their knowledge is inferior and erroneous. By contrast, “we know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (verses 18–20).
Finally John adds, in what may seem a curious last thought, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (verse 21). Idols represent false gods, and idolatry is a sin that displaces the true God. Hence it is a summation of what the followers of Christ (“little children”) must do throughout life.
The two remaining short letters deal with some of the same themes as the first letter, but in more specific ways. Each is from “the elder,” who is understood to be John. In the second letter false teachers are on their way to a specific congregation, and John is warning of that and advising what to do when they arrive. In the third letter he is dealing with a specific incident within the Church in the late first century. Both letters show the kind of behavior to which false teachers subjected the followers of Jesus.
John’s emphasis on love among the brethren and for God’s commandment continues. Personifying the Church as a woman, he says, “And now I ask you, dear lady—not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning—that we love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, so that you should walk in it” (2 John 5–6).
Gnostic antichrists are present all around and should not be welcomed among the people of God who “abide” in Christ: “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. . . . Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. . . . If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (verses 7–11).
“Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward.”
John concludes the second letter with the hope to come to see the brethren in person.
The third letter concerns a specific difficulty in one congregation founded through John’s efforts. In John’s absence a local leader took to lording it over people and became abusive of the believers and visitors. John writes to those who remain true to encourage right action and understanding of this man, who has gone so far as to banish people from the Church and to oppose John himself. John is clear about what will happen if he comes to them in person: “I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us.” The believers are encouraged to do what is right: “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (verses 9–11).
John closes, as previously, with the hope to see them and not merely communicate with pen and ink.
The New Man
By the time we reach the end of these three letters, we see a very different John than the one named a “son of thunder” by Christ. His life in God’s service brought spiritual growth and a depth that is evident. He became the last major apostolic defender of the faith and was about to receive the book of Revelation while imprisoned on the island of Patmos for his beliefs. John would be used to deliver the apocalyptic vision that became the capstone to the New Testament.