A Study of the First Epistle of John
Dear fellow Christian,
Have you ever purposed in your heart to take up the study of one of the books of the New Testament? Have you ever found yourself beginning with enthusiasm but continuing with difficulty - or perhaps not even continuing at all? I know I have. For this reason I would like to pass on to you a simple point I noticed recently in the First Epistle of John which helped me meditate with joy from start to finish.
The Number 3
In John's three contributions to the New Testament - his gospel, his epistles and the Revelation - he uses completely different styles of writing. Because the style in his first epistle is so different from many of our preferred ways of learning, we tend to find it difficult to follow. A simple point, however, that helps in studying 1 John, is to notice that he groups things into threes throughout. Some of the groups of three are very obvious - such as his grouping of the children of God into three categories (little children, young men, and fathers) in chapter 2. In these obvious cases he breaks one topic into three sub-topics.
Other groups of three may be observed by reading more carefully - such as the repetition of the phrase, 'If we say.' in chapter 1. In these cases he repeats an expression or thought three times. He also often divides sentences or phrases into three clauses - such as 2:16, '.the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.'.
The division of the Bible into chapters and verses is a wonderful human tool for helping us make references to specific passages of scripture. For example, when a speaker in a meeting identifies the passage he is quoting using the chapter and verse reference we can quickly and easily turn to that passage in our own Bibles. But the division of scripture by this method can also get in the way of a proper understanding of what God intends. Some translations make so much of the chapter and verse notation that they effectively set out each verse as a discrete paragraph. It may help you in your personal study of the scriptures to obtain an accurate translation that does not make the verse reference numbers so prominent.
To facilitate this simple study I have formatted the text of J.N. Darby's New Translation to attempt to show how John has grouped things into threes. I have added subheadings to draw attention to some of the groupings. The formatted text has been included as an attachment between the middle pages of this magazine.
Finally, each study will attempt to give firstly a summary or overview and then some detailed notes on each of the verses. Numerous commentaries have been consulted in filling out the detail. These will be listed in a bibliography at the conclusion of the study.
The Purpose of the Letter. 1 John 1:1-4
The first 4 verses form a long sentence with many parenthetical expressions amplifying its main idea. Taking it without these parenthetical expressions, it would read, 'That which was from the beginning . concerning the word of life . we report to you . that your joy may be full.' John's desire was to convey to his readers - us - the beauty of the life of Christ, in order that we might have fullness of joy. This is as simple as it is beautiful, and yet beneath the simplicity there is a wealth of detail that John is constrained to convey by putting additional expressions into parentheses.
Given that the Greek manuscripts from which our Bibles were translated have no punctuation, how do we know that John used parentheses? We can see it quite clearly by looking at the main parenthesis that encloses verse 2. The thing that makes it clear is the repetition of '.seen and heard.' in verse 3. Why does John repeat himself? It is because he is returning from a diverted train of thought back to the main track. In communicating anything to others, whenever we divert from a theme and introduce a 'side-track', it is common when we return, to repeat some of the words from where we left off in order to indicate clearly to our hearers the connection with the original theme. Paul does this in Romans 3:25-26 and Colossians 1:20 (in both these passages the King James translators added the words 'I say' to further draw attention to the way Paul was returning to his original track after inserting parenthetical detail). John uses this technique in the same way here.
Remembering that the purpose of the letter is to report to us the life of Christ in order that we might have fullness of joy, let us now consider some of its detail.
What a remarkable way to start a letter! No personal greetings. No explanations. No introduction of himself. John's contemplation of Christ was so absorbing that, in writing to us, he treats us as though we were there with him. He does not initially consider our spiritual state but assumes us to be right where he is - absorbed in contemplating Christ!
But there is another remarkable thing about the way he starts. Although he is referring to Christ, he does not use a personal pronoun. We might have expected him to say, 'He who .' but instead he writes, 'That which.'. We can gather from this that he is not only presenting to us a Person, but the life that characterised the Person; the life that was in Him. It is not possible for us to separate the life from the Person - 'He is the true God and eternal life' (1 John 5:20). But it is possible to distinguish the life from the Person and to recognise that the life can be communicated to us - 'God has given to us eternal life; and this life is in his Son' (1 John 5:11). In the one case we see that the life is inseparable from who He is - He is the eternal life. In the other we see that it can be distinguished and communicated - it is in Him and it is given to us. So John opens his letter by referring to the life, the eternal life, that is Christ and that is in Christ.
'from the beginning'
This is not the beginning of creation, as in Genesis 1:1. It is not a description of the eternal past - suited to the infirmity of our finite minds - as in John 1:1. It is the beginning of the manifestation of eternal life here in this world. The eternal life was with the Father. It was manifested to the apostles. It had never been manifested in this world before Christ came. The beginning of that manifestation was when the Word became flesh; when the eternal Son became a man. This is the beginning to which John refers.
'which' (3 times)
Having made reference to the life which was from the beginning he adds three parenthetical details. Each of these also begins with the pronoun 'which'. (1) which we have heard; (2) which we have seen with our eyes; (3) which we contemplated, and our hands handled.
The verbs used convey an increasing sense of nearness. Heard, seen, contemplated and handled. He puts the last two together. Many heard of the Lord Jesus without seeing Him. Some heard and then saw. But the apostles in a special way heard, saw, contemplated and handled Him. The root of the Greek word for 'contemplated' is the original source for the English word 'theatre'. Theirs was no mere casual hearing and seeing. They considered and examined what they had heard and seen. They became subjectively acquainted with what had been objectively presented to them.
'concerning the word of life'
The 'word of life' does not here mean 'a spoken utterance concerning life'. It is a reference to the Son, Jesus Christ. The name 'Word' tells us both who He is and what characterises Him. Our words give expression to our thoughts. All that is in God's mind is expressed in the Word - in a Person. What is distinctly in view here, however, is life. All that God has in mind concerning life is expressed in the Word, here called 'the Word of life'.
Fundamental to the truth John is teaching is the fact that the life has been manifested. 'Life', an abstract noun, represents an abstract quality that is very hard to define. Scientists and philosophers may try to define it but their definitions will never satisfy the heart or mind. God did not tell us the meaning of life, eternal life, by putting words in a dictionary. He manifested it in the person of His own Son in this world. In the parenthesis that constitutes verse 2, John firstly insists on this manifestation and then expands on it.
The direct manifestation of the life was to the apostles who kept company with Christ when He was here on earth. It was not manifested to us. Note carefully John's varied use of pronouns. Sometimes when he says 'we' it means 'we apostles'. This is evident when 'we' is set in distinction to 'you', as in verse 4: '.write we to you.'. Other times when he says 'we' it means 'we professing Christians' as in verse 6: 'If we say.'. (There is no contrasted 'you' in these instances). When not referring to what was generally true of the apostles - such as 'we have heard' - he uses the personal pronoun 'I', as in 2:7: 'I write'.
In expanding on the manifestation John says three things about it, each beginning with 'and'.
'and we have seen, and bear witness, and report to you'
1. personal experience - John had seen it for himself
2. public testimony - and relayed it to others in general
3. particular proclamation - and detailed it to the recipients of his letter.
The life was not manifested to us, but to the apostles who reported it to us.
'. the eternal life, which was with the Father, and has been manifested to us'
Having expanded on the method of manifestation, in the remainder of the verse he expands on the subject of the manifestation. What was manifested? The eternal life. In what sense was it eternal? It was with the Father. This, clearly, refers to eternity past but the eternal life which was with the Father has been manifested. It was manifested to the apostles. How? In a Person!
'The eternal life' expresses the unoriginated existence of the Person; 'which was with the Father' demonstrates His Godhead in relation to the Father; 'and has been manifested to us' recalls His manifestation through incarnation.
'. with the Father'
A frequent contributor to these pages wrote, 'Again, that eternal life was with the Father, before being manifested to us. Does this not declare plainly the sweetness of the eternal relationship enjoyed between the Father and the Son long before the public manifestation.' (L.M. Grant)
This verse commences with the repetition referred to earlier in our study. There are two reasons for this: (1) to clearly indicate the close of the parenthesis and the return to the original train of the sentence, (2) to clarify that only what was objective was reported - only what was seen and heard. John did not report his impressions of Christ. He did not try to describe how He felt when they handled Him. He did not outline the results of their contemplation. It is the objective truths concerning Christ which form the basis for and substance of Christian fellowship and which minister to us fullness of joy. Beware of Christian ministry which has a particular focus on what is subjective. Tread carefully with those whose ministry focuses excessively on their 'impressions' of Christ.
This word was generally used for official and authoritative proclamations, such as the report of the outcome of a battle by a designated military messenger. Often when we use the word today it has this character. We might speak of a test report. International accreditation bodies that endorse reports conducted by testing laboratories never permit subjective statements on most reports bearing their endorsement. A technician may never report, 'I thought.', or 'I feel.'. He may only report objective facts. It is in this very manner that John here makes his report.
What is fellowship? In our day, the word is often used to denote 'togetherness', but the New Testament does not limit it in this way. It refers to what two or more people have in common. We can have fellowship with the apostles because they reported to us what they heard and saw concerning the Son of God. We, his readers, cannot have a 'get-together' with the apostle John - but we can be absolutely certain that we have in common with him an appreciation of Christ based on all that he had seen and heard. In the same way we can enjoy 'the teaching and fellowship of the apostles' (Acts 2:42) even though they are no longer here.
Note that the fellowship is threefold. This being the case, why does John not say that our fellowship is with the Holy Spirit? In 2 Corinthians 13:14 the apostle Paul mentions fellowship in connection with the Holy Spirit but he, like John, does not say our fellowship is with Him. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is that Person of the Godhead Who has come to indwell us, to give us both the title and the power to enjoy things in common with the Father, with the Son and with one another. If people address the Holy Spirit in prayer or worship they presume to be reverent by attempting to put Him in a place that He has not taken. But this is a false reverence, based either on a disregard or disrespect for the Word of God. The scriptures are clear as to how He is to be reverenced. They tell us not to grieve Him. They tell us not to quench Him. Unquenched and ungrieved He is free to carry out the functions for which He has come and to maintain in us power for communion (fellowship) with the Father and the Son.
One perplexity often encountered when seeking to study scripture seriously is that the various translations of the Bible often contain significant differences. A frequent cause of these differences is that the translators have used different Greek manuscripts as the basis for their work. One might ask, 'If these renowned scholars can't agree, how can I as a simple believer possibly know which is right?' An example of such a discrepancy occurs here and provides us with one technique for determining the correct translation.
Some Bibles instead of 'your joy' have 'our joy'. How do we know which is correct? Some books and commentaries say that it doesn't matter - that the interpretation is the same either way. Is this an upright way of handling the Word of God? Dare we fix on an interpretation and then force any statement to fit that interpretation? Can we say, 'It doesn't matter what it says, this is what I think the meaning is'? So how do we work it out? It becomes evident from referring to a concordance. Each of the ten times John refers to his act of writing it is always in connection with a result to be produced in the lives of his readers. See for example 2:1,7,12,13,14; 5:13. Whenever he says 'I write' or, 'I have written', it is always linked with 'you' or 'your'. His objective here is thus the joy to be produced in us as a result of what he wrote.
This gracious desire is unspeakably lovely. Consider the following words written by one who, through a passage in this very epistle, had found rest of soul in Christ and His finished work.
'The declared purpose, then, of this divine communication is that we might have the same fellowship as the apostles had with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, and the gracious aim thereby to fill our hearts with joy. If such a blessedness at all fail, nothing conceivable could effect that result. Is there not beyond comparison far more to fill our hearts with joy than in any other boon that could be given us?'
'Thus we have fellowship with the Father in the possession of the Son, and fellowship with the Son in the possession of the Father. How could our joy but be full? Even heaven and glory everlasting dwindle in comparison; but we have these too. If we knew of such fellowship, and had it not, could our joy be as full as it is?' (W. Kelly).
The Message of God and the Claims of Men. 1 John 1:5 - 2:2
The Lord Jesus conveyed one message about God that John was able to express in a simple, brief sentence. The 5th verse refers to this. The remaining verses deal with the claims of men - of professing Christians. There are three claims, each with a consequence and a corresponding moral state. And for each claim there is an answering remedial statement which demonstrates the character and resources of true believers. Each of the claims and each of the contrasts is detailed in three clauses. Notice that the intensity of the consequences resulting from the claims increases. In the first, 'we lie'. In the second, 'we deceive ourselves'. Lastly, 'we make Him a liar'!
In the same way that God did not define life, eternal life, for us in a dictionary, so the Lord Jesus did not give a verbal definition of light. God is light - it is part of His essential nature. It indicates His intrinsic and absolute purity. 'Light is immaterial, diffusive, pure and glorious. It is the condition of life. Physically, it represents glory; intellectually, truth; morally, holiness.' (M.R. Vincent) It is what God is in Himself in an absolute sense. Flowing from it are His attributes - which are relative - such as righteousness and holiness. His attributes are a consequence of what He is in Himself; they indicate what He is in relation to others.
Whereas the manifestation of life was received by what the apostles saw in Christ, the message of light was received by what they heard from Him. It is declared here as the standard against which the claims of men may be measured. The introduction (vv. 1-4) gave the purpose of the letter - fellowship and joy resulting from the manifestation and communication of eternal life. The message that God is light is introduced here to test the claims of all who say they have this fellowship.
'If we say' (claim No.1)
The claims John presents here are really the claims of false professors of Christianity but he presents them in such a way as to arrest even the consciences of true believers. In this first claim he takes up specifically the thought of what (these days) we call a 'relationship with God'. He does not talk about 'being saved' although we may well consider the two to be synonymous. Paraphrasing it, we would say, 'You can't be serious if you say you have a relationship with God and there is nothing in your life that matches up to it.'
'If' (answer No.1)
The claim in verse 6 was the false claim of an unsaved person. The answer here in verse 7 is the true standing of a saved person. The 'if' is not an 'if' of doubt. It is not a conditional 'if'. It is an 'if' of argument. In this verse he makes an abstract, absolute statement as to our Christian standing.
Some believers read this as if it says, 'if we walk according to the light' but this is not the real meaning of walking in the light. To walk in the light as He is in the light is to live in a position where God's revealed nature illuminates and exposes all that we do - whether good or evil. Those who walk in darkness have no real relationship with the living and true God. His nature has no bearing on the character of their lives. Their sins are not exposed to their consciences as are ours who know God and who walk in the light. From Paul's teaching we may say that although the flesh is in us we are not in the flesh. From John's we may say that although we do not walk in darkness there is darkness in us. The light in which we now walk exposes that darkness, inducing us to confess our sins.
Remember that this answer to false profession gives abstract, absolute statements as to our Christian standing. This is John's way of teaching. He is not giving concrete suggestions concerning specific circumstances. To attempt to interpret his words in this way would lead to confusion or to false doctrine or both. For example, to say that to 'walk in the light' is equivalent to practical Christian holiness, then the interpretation of the passage would be, 'if we live our lives as holy as God Himself . the blood of Christ cleanses us from our sins'. If it is really speaking about practical consistency, walking in the light as God is, then speaking of cleansing is absurd. Sometimes we hear people say that when we sin we need to re-apply the blood of Christ! They base it on this verse, claiming that the word 'cleanses' is a continuous verb - that it is an ongoing process. Such teaching puts Christians in bondage and denigrates the finished work of Christ. It sets scriptures against one another (such as Rev. 1:5 - He loves us (ongoing) and has washed us (past) from our sins in His own blood). And it falsely assumes a position of linguistic superiority! Continuous verbs are used to teach abstract absolute concepts. Scripture says, 'He is the propitiation for our sins'. This refers to His finished work on the cross. Doctors say, 'Oat bran reduces cholesterol.' Continuous verbs are not used merely to describe actions currently being performed.
John states, in an absolute way, the cleansing of believers by the blood of Christ - expressed in an abstract way, without reference to time past, present or future - as one of the main characteristics of their standing.
'If we say' (claim No. 2)
This false claim would deny that we have a sinful nature, 'We have no sin'. It refers to sin in our nature. The next (v.10) refers to sins committed in practice. One of the very first principles of scripture is that of 'trees yielding fruit . after their kind.' (Gen. 1:12). Apples grow on an apple tree, plums on a plum tree and sins on a sin tree! If believers do not have a sinful nature then it is not possible for them to commit sins. What pathetic self-deception! To claim that we do not have a sinful nature is to claim that it is impossible for us to commit sins.
Is it not just the reverse application of this false teaching to the Lord Jesus Himself that has corrupted many Christians? When people say that it was even possible for the Lord Jesus to have sinned, it amounts to asserting that He had a sinful nature. What blasphemy! Let us avoid it at all costs. Trees yield fruit only after their kind - and, praise God, our Lord Jesus Christ was the true 'sprout of Jehovah for beauty and glory' (Isa. 4:2) who was to 'grow up before him as a tender sapling' (Isa. 53:2). Being God He is perfect in holiness and it is gloriously and uniquely true of Him that 'in Him is no sin' (1 Jn. 3:5).
'If' (answer No. 2)
As is often the case in scripture, it is the response to what is false that gives occasion to the unfolding of wonderful truth. What a blessed provision for the child of God we find here! Notice that it is not needful to confess that sin is in us. When we were born again God did not remove our sinful nature, and He does not hold us responsible for its existence. But we are responsible for its actions - and the actions of that nature are sins. If we say that we have no sin, how can self-judgment and confession have a place in our Christian lives? But if the truth is in us, recognising the existence and nature of sin within us, we will be prepared both to judge and confess the actions that result from that nature.
The word here simply means, 'to say the same thing'. To speak to God the same thing that is on our heart and conscience, the hiding of which will cause a sense of distance from Him. It is not a matter of begging or pleading for forgiveness. It is His desire and delight to forgive. Our place is not to beg forgiveness - but rather it is to judge ourselves so that we see the true source and character of our actions, agreeing with His estimate of our actions and speaking that agreement to Him. This, in summary, is repentance and confession.
Send away, let go, give up, remit, forgive. These words give the true sense of what forgiveness is. It is not, as we sometimes think, a change of attitude. Forgiveness is not merely an abstract concept. It is definite and concrete. The finished work of Christ on the cross has put us in a forgiven position in the sight of God in which the eternal consequences of our sins have been sent away. But our sins also have consequences in our lives here on earth. Examples of these temporal consequences include death (as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira or of the Corinthians), sickness (James 5), debt, a sense of distance in a relationship (including things like reduced confidence and a lack of trust). Scriptures that indicate how forgiveness involves the removal (or sending away) of such consequences include 2 Samuel 12:13; Mathew 6:14-15; 18:21-35; John 20:23; James 5:15.
Fellowship with the Father and the Son is the great privilege taught us by John. It results for us in fulness of joy. One significant consequence of our sins is that a barrier comes in to hinder the practical enjoyment of this fellowship. When we confess our sins, God faithfully and righteously removes this consequence, this barrier, opening the way for our joy to be restored.
Sins we have committed not only entail consequences here on earth but also produce in our consciences a felt sense of inconsistency with our true Christian position. Young believers, sometimes on account of having received defective teaching, feeling this inconsistency, may therefore doubt their salvation. Unrighteousness is inconsistency in any relationship in which we are set. (And how wonderfully does the Word of God teach practical righteousness in every relationship of life! Husband - wife; parent - child; employee - employer; ruler - subject; brother - brother etc.) Committing sins produces in our consciences the sense of our inconsistency in that holy relationship in which we have been set with God. Confessing them, the scripture assures us that He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness - from all inconsistency. He is both faithful and righteous (consistent with His own nature) in doing so.
'If we say' (claim No. 3)
Perhaps some Christians have wrongly believed that upon conversion our sinful nature was removed, and in the words of verse 8 have said, 'we have no sin'. Conscious indeed of the sins they commit in practice, they are perhaps unaware of the gross inconsistency of claiming that they have no sinful nature. They are deceived and the truth is not in them.
But this third claim is more bold. It is not merely self-deception but an affront towards God. In the presence of Him Who said, 'all have sinned' (Rom. 3:23), who would dare claim that we have not sinned. Verse 4 of that same chapter in Romans says, in relation to the acknowledgement of sins, 'but let God be true, and every man false'. To claim that we have not sinned reverses the picture and makes God to be a liar. God's word is so clear as to this matter that if we say we have not sinned it proves that His word is not in us.
'If' (answer No. 3)
What a glorious triumph in this third answer to that third false claim. None should ever dare claim that they have not sinned but all should make it their constant aim to not sin. John did not expose the falsity of the claim in order to cause us to be lax about sins and to treat them as a foregone conclusion in our lives. He wrote in order that we might be encouraged, motivated and challenged to not sin.
Yet if sin should come in, what a gracious provision we have in the unfinished work, the Person, and the finished work of Christ. The first 'If we say.' in this series was answered by 'If we walk.' The second by 'If we confess.'. The third here, is answered by 'if anyone sin.'. Notice that the provision is not conditional upon repentance, confession, restoration or anything we may do or feel. If anyone sin we have a patron with the Father.
What then is the character of the service of the Lord Jesus as our patron with the Father? Other words for patron include solicitor, advocate, comforter. In the affairs of this world a solicitor may act on our behalf when he knows our case because he knows the protocols of a legal system which is too complicated for us. The Lord Jesus certainly knows our case. He knows our history, He knows our character, our desires, our present state, and He knows the divine system in which He acts on our behalf. He does not minimise or gloss over our sins - He is Jesus Christ the righteous. He is with the Father and He both pleads with Him concerning our sins and acts towards us to bring us to repentance and restoration.
We see a beautiful example of this service in the Lord's dealings with Peter before He left this earth. For a summary of this example please read Luke 22:31-32; 61-62; 24:33-34; John 21:15-19. Peter's sin of pride, self-confidence and superiority over his brethren was already in evidence on that dark night. But Christ, his patron, was praying for him. His prayers had Peter's restoration in view and had Peter's faith as their subject. At the moment when Peter's sin was fully consummated the Lord acted towards him - by a mere look - to bring home to his conscience his guilt. The Lord's action continued until there was full restoration, first appearing to him and then challenging him about the proud claims he had previously made.
'But the stress is thrown on the prayer of Christ, not of Peter, however men may reason. 'If any one sin,' we have - not shall have when he repents - 'If any one sin, we have an advocate with the Father.' It is the settled possession that Christians always have. Sin is inexcusable always in a saint; but if one should be guilty, 'we have an advocate with the Father.' His advocacy brings us to repentance. It is not our repentance that makes Him our advocate, but His grace which puts all in effectual activity.' (W. Kelly)
There are many ways in which we make God a liar if we say we have not sinned. We have already seen that we would make Him a liar in relation to what He has said. But we would also make Him a liar in relation to what He is and what He has provided. Because of all that He is, He has provided Christ both as an advocate if we sin and as a propitiation because we have sinned. Propitiation refers to His once and for all work on the cross (which has a lasting, abiding, eternal effect). Advocacy refers to the work He is still doing. To claim we have not sinned nullifies His provision of Christ in every way.
'He is the propitiation for our sins .'
'. also for the whole world'
Notice the important distinction between what is said concerning us and concerning the world. Propitiation is the aspect of Christ's work in which He has satisfied the righteous claims of God. Because of Christ's work of propitiation, God can righteously justify the believer - or as Romans teaches - 'that He should be just, and justify him that is of the faith of Jesus.' (Rom. 3:26). Because Christ is the propitiation for our sins God has righteously shown mercy and favour to each individual believer, having justified us and introduced us into a relationship with Himself. Additionally, because He is the propitiation for the whole world, God can righteously offer His mercy and salvation to the world.
On the cross the Lord Jesus did not bear the sins of every human being in the world. Every individual has not thereby been justified. But He did meet God's righteous claims with respect to the world as a whole. Through His work on the cross all things will one day be reconciled to God (Col. 1:20). And at the present time God can righteously offer to the whole world His mercy and salvation. The same sacrifice that has enabled God to act righteously with mercy towards me regarding my sins enables Him to act righteously with forbearance towards the whole world. The world is evil, subject to Satan as its god, at enmity with God, and under His judgment, and yet instead of executing that judgment God acts with longsuffering, continuing to present His salvation to all.
'He that says'
'And hereby we know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.
- He that says, I know him, and does not keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him
- but whoever keeps his word, in him verily the love of God is perfected.
Hereby we know that we are in him.
- He that says he abides in him
ought, even as he walked, himself also [so] to walk.
Beloved, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment, which ye have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye heard.
Again, I write a new commandment to you, which thing is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light already shines.
- He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in the darkness until now.
- He that loves his brother abides in light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness. and knows not where he goes. because the darkness has blinded his eyes.'
3 Claims and 3 Tests. 1 John 2:3-11
In the previous section three claims of professing Christians were exposed in such a way as to arrest the consciences of true Christians as well. The style of the language in that passage turns the thoughts of the reader inwards -'If we say...'.
In this present section tests are given for three claims of professing Christians. Again John writes in such a way as to cause us to judge ourselves and to consider our own state (by using the expression 'we know'), but the general style of the language really turns the thoughts of the reader outwards towards others - 'He that says...'. When we meet another person who claims to be a Christian, this section gives us tests against which to measure their claim.
The pattern in this section is:
. an opening statement,
. a human claim.
. a positive test of the reality of that claim.
Each opening statement indicates something that is a key feature of the possession of life from God: 'we know Him' (v.3), 'we are in Him' (v.5-6), and the existence of that which 'is true in Him and in you' (v.8). Whereas the foundation underlying the previous section was the theme of fellowship, here it is life.
'hereby' (Statement No. I )
The first feature of divine life is knowing Him - knowing Christ. This is not a theoretical, abstract kind of knowledge but a knowledge that demonstrates itself in practical obedience. Keeping His commandments is the practical proof that we know Him.
'know that we know'
Here is a comment by the well-known Greek scholar W E Vine. It indicates the accuracy of the language in which the New Testament was originally written:
'The tenses of the verb differ in the two parts of the sentence. The first is present continuous, expressing a course of procedure. the second is a perfect tense, expressing completeness. To bring this out, we may paraphrase thus: 'hereby we constantly have the experience of knowing that we have come to know Him.' ... The word is ginosko, i.e., 'to learn by experience,' and this is to be distinguished from oida ... which means 'to know by immediate knowledge, or by intuition'.'
Here is another important characteristic of John's epistle. Practical Christianity depends on what we are now - not on what we were in the past. Therefore John regularly uses verbs in the present tense, for example:
2:29 every one who practises righteousness
3:3 purifies himself
3:6 whoever abides in Him
5:1 Everyone that believes
5:1 every one that loves
The eternal security of the believer is a vital and important doctrine -, but the Holy Spirit does not comfort a backslidden person with thoughts of their eternal security! By use of these present tense verbs He gives encouragement of this assurance only to those whose lives are in practical conformity to His Word. By keeping His commandments we have the ongoing experimental assurance that at some time in the past we have come to know Him. Remembering the date of our conversion does not give us this experimental assurance. Writing the date in a diary or on a certificate does not provide it. To enjoy this knowledge in a continuous and practical way we must keep His commandments.
Here is an example of the kind of false teaching that John confronted during his lifetime:
,Not yet are we able to open the eyes of the mind and to behold the beauty, the imperishable, inconceivable beauty, of the Good. For you will see it when you cannot say anything about it. For the knowledge of it is divine silence and annihilation of all senses.... Irradiating the whole mind, it shines upon the soul and draws it up from the body. and changes it all into divine essence' (cited in Expositor's Bible Commentary).
Knowledge, to these mystics, was an incredibly abstract concept. But to John, to the Christian, it is simple: 'by this we know that we know him. if we keep his commandments.' It is not only simple but it is practical. But here we need to ask a question. What are His commandments? Didn't Paul teach that we are not under law? Is there an inconsistency here?
'His commandments' are not the Ten Commandments of the law of Moses proposed to the children of Israel as a means to obtain life. Commandments in Christianity are addressed to those who already have life and who have a nature capable of keeping them. The following quotation from F B Hole is helpful in this context:
'Let us clearly grasp the fact that there are commandments in Christianity, though they are not of a legal order: and by that we mean. not given to us in order that we may thereby either establish or maintain our footing before God. Every definite expression of God's will has the force of a command. and we shall find this epistle has a great deal to say to us about His commandments, and they 'are not grievous' (ch. 5 v. 3). The law of Christ is a law of liberty. inasmuch as we are brought into His life and nature.'
Another characteristic feature of John's epistle is evident at this point. That is. he refers to 'Him' or 'His' without making it clear whether he is referring to the Father or the Son. In the context of this verse, this is not an issue to confuse our minds - rather it is a matter to warm our hearts! Because the Son always did those things that pleased the Father! It is vital not to attempt to restrict the idea of 'His commandments' in any way. Every expression of the Father's will was displayed in Christ - in walk, in work, in word. This is where we read His commandments - not just in the directions He gave verbally or when He prefaced a saying with the words. 'This is my commandment...'. If we want to learn His commandments, we must learn Christ!
'He that says...' (Claim No. 1)
Notice that the true condition of such a person is similar to what John wrote in response to the first two claims in the previous section. There he wrote 'we lie' (1:6) 'and the truth is not in us' (1:8). Here he writes, 'He ... is a liar, and the truth is not in him.' In the previous section he wrote to arrest our own consciences. In this section the focus is on evaluating the claims of others.
'keeps His word...' (Test No. 1)
In some parts of the scriptures, the Lord's commandments are distinguished from His word. But in this First Epistle of John they are identified rather than distinguished.
In the parts of scripture where they are distinguished we might think of His commandment as that which is expressed, and His word as that which is implied. We might also say His commandment is objective (presented to us externally), His word comes to us subjectively - making an impression inwardly so that it affects our thinking and behaviour. But in this book those distinctions are not highlighted.
For example in 1 John 1:10 we learn that the right state for Christians is that His word is in us. In 2:8 the new commandment is shown to be true in Him and in you. Both His word and His commandment are shown to have a subjective effect. Again, in 2:7 'the old commandment is the word...'. They are identified and not distinguished.
Bearing this in mind we can see how verses 4 and 5 together are written in the manner of Solomon's proverbs. Recall how in the Proverbs the truth is often condensed by setting two opposites in contrast in a way that teaches four things and not merely two. Read for example Proverbs 10:21. Here we learn two things directly:
. The lips of a righteous man feed many
. Fools die for want of understanding
but also two things indirectly:
. The lips of fools do not feed many
. A righteous man lives through understanding
The whole intent of the proverb is to teach all four things by using this condensed style. In a similar manner we learn from 1 John 2:4-5 that both the love of God and the truth are in one who keeps His Word, and that neither are in the empty professor of Christianity.
'love of God is perfected'
To understand this phrase it is important to bear in mind all that has been said before. With this in mind, these remarks by J N Darby are extremely helpful:
'Now this life is the divine life manifested in Jesus, and which is imparted to us. Have we seen it in Christ? Do we doubt that this is love; that the love of God has been manifested in it? If then I keep His word; if the scope and meaning of the life which that word expresses is thus understood and realised, the love of God is perfect in me. The Apostle, as we have seen, always speaks abstractedly. If in fact at any given moment I do not observe the word, in that point I do not realise His love; happy intercourse with God is interrupted. But so far as I am moved and governed absolutely by His word, His love is completely realised in me; for His word expresses what He is, and I am keeping it. This is the intelligent communion with His nature in its fullness, a nature in which 1 participate; so that 1 know that He is perfect love, 1 am filled with it, and this shows itself in my ways: for that word is the perfect expression of Himself.'
'He that has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me; but he that loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will manifest myself to him' (John 14:21).
'Hereby' (Statement No.2)
The second feature of divine life is that we are in Him - in Christ. The desire of the Apostle here is that we should know it. Every saved person is in Christ. But John wants us to know that we are in Him.
It is no more possible to define what it means to be 'in Him' as it is to define what life is. It involves the thought that God has put us into a position and relationship with Himself in which He regards us just as He regards His own beloved Son. Our position is within the new creation, where all things have been made new. Our relationship [as described in this epistle] is that of children with the Father. These things can be seen in passages such as Ephesians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5.
'Our being 'in Him' involves our participation in His life and nature. There is of course a very intimate connection between knowing 'that we know Him,' (v.3) and knowing 'that we are in Him,' (v.5). The second introduces us to a deeper thing. Angels know Him, and obey His commands. We are to know Him, as those who are in Him, and hence the slightest intimation of His thought or desire should be understood by us, and incite us to glad obedience.'
'He that says...' (Claim No. 2)
'Being in Him, we are to 'abide in Him;' which means, as we understand it, abide in the consciousness and power of being in Him. Now it is easy for any of us to say, 'I abide in Him,' but if so we must produce that which proves the claim to be real.'
'walk' (Test No.2)
'Such an one 'ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked.' If we are in His life, and also in the power and enjoyment of it, that life is bound to express itself in our ways and activities just as it did in Him. The grace and power of our walk, compared with His, will be poor and feeble; yet it will be walk of the same order. The difference will not be in kind but only in degree.'
These helpful extracts have been taken from a commentary by F B Hole, available from the publishers. Another challenging and helpful summary of the teaching of these verses has been written by J N Darby:
'In Christ before God I have the consciousness of divine favour resting on me; but Christ in me is the standard for my walk. Christ is before God for me and I in Him: I am before the world for Christ and He in me. Now if Christ be in you, let me see Him.'
'Beloved' (Statement No.3)
The third feature of divine life is that there is that which is true in Him and in us. Considering them all together, how beautifully reminiscent these three features are of the words John heard the Lord Jesus speak in the upper room the night He was betrayed: 'In that day ye shall know that 1 am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you' (John 14:20-21). This is what John had heard from the beginning - the features of divine life clearly outlined: knowing, being in Him, He being in us.
'no new commandment'
John was conscious that the commandment of which he was writing was not new. It had been in existence 'from the beginning'. (Remember that this expression was first used in the first verse of chapter 1. It refers to the time when the Lord Jesus was alive here on earth.) The context here shows that the subject is specifically the Lord's commandment to love one another.
'a new commandment'
Considering it from a different perspective, this commandment (to love one another) was new. How can this be? How could a commandment be both new and not new? Historically it was not new, vitally it was new. Historically - from the beginning - there was only One who could and did keep it. Amongst the twelve disciples (including John) there were rivalries and self-centredness. There was but One who would lay down His life for His friends. But in John 14:20-21 He spoke of what was then a coming day, the Spirit's day, the day in which what had been true in Him uniquely would also become true in those who belonged to Him. The commandment is new in this respect: it is 'true in Him and in you'. We now have a nature capable of responding to the commandment. His life is imparted to us and we have the Holy Spirit as the power of that life. This is all new in Christianity. Prior to the resurrection of Christ it was not so. The unique feature of Christianity is that it is not comprised of legal commandments. Its commandments are not addressed to man in the flesh with the objective of him attaining life through keeping them. They are addressed to those who already have life, who have from God a nature that delights in those commandments.
Having the same life as Christ, that which is true in Him is also true in them.
'the darkness is passing'
At this point in the verse there is a mistake in the translation of the King James Version which has, 'the darkness is past'. Greek scholars have frequently demonstrated that the verb is in the present tense - passing, not passed. The context of this mistake serves to highlight a wonderful feature of the marvellous grace of God and of the character of John's epistle. John regularly puts things in black and white. No shades of grey. No transition. Light or darkness; love or hate; of God or of the devil. Contextually therefore it would not have been out of the question to expect that he would have said that the darkness is past.
It is this that beautifully displays God's grace. In Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). But in us the darkness is passing. The true light already shines - the life of Christ (and the life was the light of men) imparted to us and displayed in us. In us the measure in which the light shines and the extent to which it dispels the darkness may be small - yet in wonderful grace He credits us with it being 'true in him and in you'. In us the darkness may be merely passing, but the life which we have received, and the light that shines come from Him in whom is no darkness at all.
'He who says' (Claim No.3)
The claim here exposes the character of one for whom it cannot be said that the darkness is passing. Hating his brother is proof that he is not in the light. Notice that it is a claim; a profession. The Lord always takes men up on their profession. As an unbeliever, in darkness, he is not a brother. But his responsibility is measured against his profession. As to his practical state he is not a brother. As to his profession he has brothers that he ought to love. His hatred of them proves that he is in the darkness.
'He that loves' (Test No.3)
This is the final test in this series of three. In each group there is a statement, a claim and a test. In the previous section fellowship was the theme underlying the groups of three. In this section the underlying theme is life. There is a close connection between life and light as seen in the paragraphs above. There is also a close connection between these two things and love.
Here is the test. Does the one who professes Christianity love his brother? It does not ask how much he loves him, but whether the love is there. It might be but feebly expressed but love is not hatred. There are hundreds of practical ways in which it may be expressed - in tenderness: a consoling word, a helping hand, a helping handout; or in firmness: a correcting word, a chastening hand, unflinching obedience to God's Word. The expression may be feeble but love is love. Love desires the blessing and well being of its object.
Hatred is the opposite. It denies any responsibility for a brother- `am I my brother's keeper?' In effect it would wish him dead, and, therefore he who hates his brother is a murderer (I John 3:15).
He that loves his brother abides in the light. He doesn't have to say he is in the light. He doesn't make claims about himself. The love he expresses, flowing from the life that he has, proves it.
Three Generations of the Children of God. 1 John 2:12-27
In the first study the grouping of God's children into three different stages of growth was noted as being one of the very obvious threes in the epistle. Surprisingly. a vast number of well-known Christian teachers do not notice it. This introduction will firstly show the grouping in outline form and then use an alternative outline to provide a basis for understanding why many fail to notice John's true grouping.
- I write to you children... (v.12)
- I write to you fathers... (v.13a)
- I write to you young men... (v.I3b)
- I write to you little children... (v.l3c)
- I have written to you fathers... (v.I4a)
- I have written to you young men... (v.I4b-17)
- Little children... (v.18-27)
Every believer is included in John's opening words to children (v.12). Then in verse 13 he indicates the three sub-groups of God's children to whom he is writing. In verses 14 onwards he expands on this further, increasing in volume as the maturity of his audience decreases.
An Alternative Outline
- I write to you children... (v.12)
- I write to you fathers... (v.I3a)
- I write to you young men... (v.I3b)
- I have written to you little children... (v.l3c)
- I have written to you fathers... (v.I4a)
- I have written to you young men... (v.I4b)
This outline focuses on the two different tenses of the verb 'to write'. In many Greek manuscripts the tense changes in verse 13c - thus making 'I write' and 'I have written' three times respectively. Although this outline seems attractive in that it makes an attractive little 'poem' of verses 12-14, there are several reasons why it does not adequately tit with the structure and teaching of the chapter:
- It leaves the address to 'little children' in verse 18 without a connection.
- It does not seek to explain the differences between the words 'children' (v.12) and 'little children' (v.13c).
- It puts the sub-groups into a bizarre sequence, not having any intelligible moral or chronological order - children, fathers, young men.
- It relies on a disputed textual rendering of the tense of a verb rather than on the plain substance of the chapter.
- By virtue of all these things it generates in the minds of its adherents such confusion and diversity of thought that practical application and grasp of God's thoughts becomes either difficult or impossible.
- Here are some examples of the diversity that arises from dividing up the section based on the disputed tenses of the verbs:
- 'four states instead of three are here described: fathers ... young men ... little children ... beloved children ...' (A. Clarke).
- '...addressed in turn to 'children', 'fathers', 'young men'...' (Expositors Bible Commentary).
- ... John is not addressing three age groups: children, fathers, and young men. That sequence is rather unnatural. ... But if we take 'children' in a general sense, then John appeals to two groups: fathers and young men' (S. Kistemaker).
What a muddle! Are there four, three or two groups? By overemphasising the esoteric (tenses of verbs and textual criticism), what is plainly apparent (three sub-groups of God's children) becomes impossible for respected Bible teachers to see - beclouded and disguised in a haze of expository mumbo-jumbo!
As we progress with this study, be reminded that although the word of God is written so that it can only be apprehended by spiritual intelligence (1 Cor. 2:12-16; 1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:16) we do not require theological training or mastery of Greek texts to understand it. God's Word is accessible and explicable to every believer desiring thereby to enjoy fellowship with Him and to obtain food and direction for life's pathway here.
The expression 'children' designates every believer in the Lord Jesus. The children of God are characterised in the following ways:
- their sins are forgiven for His name's sake,
- they have a patron with the Father (2:1),
- they have received the Father's love (3:1),
- they practise righteousness and love their brethren (3:10).
All these things are the true privileges of every believer irrespective of age or maturity, but lets us consider the one here in verse 12 for the moment, - your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake! Those to whom John wrote were precious to him, as indicated by the word he used to address them - but further, they were precious to God, as indicated by the fact that their sins were forgiven.
Whilst in the Greek language there is a clear distinction between the two different words for children in this chapter, an appropriate English translation is difficult. Both words are diminutive expressions - that is, they are derived from more formal words but have a suffix attached to change their character into something more affectionate and intimate. (In English there are many examples of words that are made diminutive by the addition of a suffix. For example: dear - dearie, kitten - kitty, etc.) Technically, both could be accurately translated 'little children' - but this would fail to show the distinction between them. The first, teknia, emphasises relationship by birth; the second, paidia, emphasises that one is under the care, discipline, instruction, direction and responsibility of another. It is possible for a translation of these words to be technically correct and yet still inappropriate. An appropriate and helpful translation must clearly indicate that two distinct words are used. William Kelly's translation, for example, achieves the task of both accuracy and appropriateness by using `dear children' and 'little children' to distinguish the two. The translation by J N Darby makes the distinction by using 'children' and `little children'.
All believers are children because they have been born again.
'Your sins are forgiven'
This is an absolute fact, true of every believer, John wrote because of this very reason - but having introduced various tests in the preceding sections, it was necessary to emphasise this fact here. Recall that we dare not say that we have no sin, or that we have not committed sins. If we sin we have a patron with the Father and we must confess our sins. But the position that is ours - for His name's sake - is that our sins are forgiven.
Forgiveness (also translated remission) simply means `sending away'. The eternal consequences due to us because of our sins have been sent completely away. This is the position in which every believer stands. Of course, the consequences on earth due to us if we sin - including a break in fellowship with the Father - require confession on our part in order to be removed. It is important not to confuse these things.
In literal terms it is likely that John is here addressing those who had personally known the Lord Jesus when He was here on earth - but the intent of what he says is much wider than that. As Christians mature, the issues and exercises that once concerned and occupied them become less important or significant. Christ Himself and knowing Him personally becomes the paramount concern. The apostle Paul used the expression, 'that I may know Him...'
The Bible teacher F B Hole, towards the end of his life spoke of the many things that had engaged his attention as a. young man, in contrast with his occupation as an old man - the simple things connected with Christ Himself. As a young man he had been involved in publishing and editing work for the blessing of many believers. As a young man he had written very helpful books on the doctrines that lie at the basis of a thorough grounding in the Christian faith - books we should have and read and treasure if it is our desire to come to a sound understanding of key New Testament doctrine -'Foundations of the Faith', 'Outlines of Truth' and 'The Great Salvation'. But in his old age he said it was no longer these things that held his attention! The one thing John says about fathers - emphasised as important by repetition - is that they had known Him that was from the beginning.
The personal and intimate knowledge of Christ Himself is to be the ultimate goal of Christian growth.
Why did John virtually repeat what He said to the fathers? To emphasise its importance - but also to emphasise their constancy and stability. `Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be constantly praising thee.' (Psalm 84:4). Think of the constancy of Anna the prophetess, 'herself a widow up to eighty-four years; who did not depart from the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers...' (Luke 2:37). Constancy, stability, praise. These are the marks of fathers.
'...have overcome the wicked one.' This has particular reference to overcoming his attempts to divert by false teaching. Verse 14 makes this apparent. Through the abiding word of God, young men have strength - and it is by this means alone that they have any power to overcome the wicked one.
A distressing feature of these last days is the way in which many brothers who are older in years and esteemed as fathers by those who are younger, fail with respect to overcoming the wicked one by refusing false teachings. The occupation of fathers with Christ - if genuine - will not dispense with the need to stand firm for the truth and against the wicked one! 'Fathers', 'young men', and 'little children' are not descriptions of spiritual state but of maturity. True fathers do not dispense with or belittle what once characterised them as young men.
Do you aspire to be a young man? Then get the Word of God into you. Do not merely memorise the words printed on the pages of your Bible (although this is a vital starting point), but exercise yourself to understand God's thoughts in giving those words. 'Word' (logos) conveys not only the expression but the thought behind the expression - which may only be grasped by fully following up the teaching or doctrine (compare ]Tim. 4:16).
Are you a father? Then demonstrate it by your constant stability - not tossed about by every wind of doctrine. Maintain and uphold truth learned in communion with Christ.
But John has more to say to young men. By the abiding word of God young men may well overcome the wicked one's attempts to divert by false teaching - but what about his attempts to divert by using the influences of the world of which he is the god? This is the particular snare John anticipates young men encountering. His remedy is to thoroughly define it in order to expose what it is in its true character.
'Love not the world, nor the things in the world. If any one love the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world is passing, and its lust, but he that does the will of God abides for eternity.'
All that is in the world ... is of the world. It is not of the Father. What is the world? What are the things in the world? What does it mean that they are of the world? Young men especially but all believers generally are to take care not to love it or the things in it. We ought to take care, therefore, to know what these things mean.
'World' is used in various different ways in the New Testament. It is not a reference here to the persons who comprise the world -'for God so loved the world.' It is rather an organised system of things with an origin, motivating principle, and destiny in complete opposition to the love of the Father. In principle it began with the fall of man and was epitomised by Cain. He went out from the presence of God, took a wife, had a family, built a city, became the progenitor of urban life, of entertainment, commerce and industry. It is not these things in themselves that constitute the world, but it is the systematised way in which they support and sustain life, and absorb energy and attention, in absolute separation from and without reference to God.
We are touched daily by or involved in all that Cain instituted. But are our thoughts, our habits, our conduct, our aspirations governed by it and by the principles that ensure success in it? This is the issue raised here by John.
'And when we look now at the principles and motives of the world, are they other than 'the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life'? Do not pleasure, gain, vanity, ambition, govern men? 1 do not speak of exceptions, but of what characterises the world. When we speak of men rising in the world, getting on in the world, is it not ambition and gain which are in question? Is there much difference in what Cain did in his city, and what men are now doing in theirs? If a Chinese, who had heard a missionary speak of Christ and Christianity, came to London to see what it was, would he find the mass of men, the world, governed by other motives than what governed the masses at Nankin [Nanjing], or Pekin [Beijing], or Canton [Guangzhou]? Would they not be seeking gain, as he would have done there, or pleasure, as they do there, or power and honour, as they do there? What is the world in its motives? A system in which men seek honour one of another, and not the honour which cometh from God only.'
(J N Darby, What is the World?)
I sit here reading these words en-route home from China. On every visit to that country 1 am struck by the blatant corruption in commerce, industry, society and politics - by the selfishness and lust for power - I find here. But is the western world any different? Is my natural heart any different?
'Commerce, we are told, civilises. Education enlarges and improves the mind. Commerce does take away grossness and violence; but gain is its motive. Its earnest pursuit tends to destroy higher motives, and to make a moral estimate of value sink into money and selfishness. It has nowhere elevated the tone of society, but the contrary. It has not stopped wars; it has caused many. Commercial nations have, in general, been the least scrupulous, and the most grasping. Excuses may be formed; but none but a commercial people would make a war to sell opium. What has education done? It enlarges the mind. Be it so; of course it does. Does it change the motives which govern the heart? In no way. Men are more educated than they were; but what is the change? Is the influence of superstition really diminished? In no wise. On the contrary, the infidelity produced by dependence on man's mind has forced men, who are not personally established in divine truth, back into superstition, to find repose and a resting-place. One of the worst signs of the present day, and which is observable everywhere, is that deliverance from superstition and error is not now by means of positive truth; but that liberty of mind, sometimes called liberalism, which is bound by no truth, and knows no truth, but doubts all truth, is simply destructive. Go anywhere and everywhere, to India or England, Italy or Russia, or America: deliverance from superstition is not by truth, but by disbelief of all known truth'. (JND, ibid.)
In modern society we look with disdain upon nations now using the gross methods once used by the western world to commercial prosperity through drug traffic, slave labour, environmental irresponsibility, etc. - Did not these same methods characterise the western nations in their rise to present-day prosperity? Where would Britain and its allies be without the once lucrative enforced opium trade into China? Where the Americas without slavery? Where industry without the environmental and social irresponsibilities of the industrial revolution? Is the western world any better now? Are we any better now? By no means.
'All that is in the world'
All that is in the world is summed up by three moral principles originating in the human heart: the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. I get what I want, I want what I see, and I, I, I! These have not changed and they never will.
Satan tried to tempt the Lord Jesus with these three things but there was no sinful nature in Him to respond to the temptation. He had been in the wilderness in conditions of adversity. Adam and Eve in the garden were in conditions of favour and the tempter's three arrows hit their target every time.*
*These things have often been the subject of ministry and exposition and hence I do not address them here. If, after further meditation, you still desire clarification, please contact the editors
The characteristic snares of idolatry seen in the history of Israel also illustrate these three moral principles that are in the world and of the world. We see the worship of Astarte (whose images are translated 'Asherahs' in the Darby translation, and `groves' in the KJV) - giving religious licence to sexual promiscuity or 'fertility', the worship of Baal - as a means to increased material prosperity; the worship of Moloch - as a means to ascendancy over one's fellow. Pleasure, possessions and power.
We may say therefore that 'the world' is that which is obtained by means of 'the things in the world' - the moral principles rooted in the sinful human heart. The issue is not whether we have pleasure, power or possessions but whether we love it (them) and whether we are governed by these means of getting it (them). If so, the love of the Father is not in us. We may well have been the recipients of God's love in His unspeakable gift, but it is not in us in a practical and experimental way-enjoyed in communion with Him.
'The world is passing'
The Lord Jesus did the will of God. How beautifully evident this was during the temptation in the wilderness. How supremely evident at the cross! 'Lo, I come to do thy will.' We are to be governed by what is eternal and not by what is passing. This gives us another simple hint as to what the world is. As to any object before us we may ask, 'Will it last?' Is it worth my time? Is it worth my energies? Dare I contravene the will of God in grasping after it?
A Study of the First Epistle of John
Little children, it is [the] last hour, and, according as ye have heard that antichrist comes, even now there have come many antichrists, whence we know that it is [the] last hour.
• They went out from among us, but they were not of us;
• for if they had been of us, they would have surely remained with us, but that they might be made manifest that none are of us.
• And ye have [the] unction from the holy [one], and ye know all things.
I have not written to you because ye do not know the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth.
• Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?
• He is the antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.
• Whoever denies the Son has not the Father either; he who confesses the Son has the Father also.
As for you let that which ye have heard from the beginning abide in you: if what ye have heard from the beginning abides in you, ye also shall abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise which he has promised us, life eternal.
These things have I written to you concerning those who lead you astray: and yourselves , the unction which ye have received from him abides in you, and ye have not need that any one should teach you; but as the same unction
• teaches you as to all things,
• and is true and is not a lie,
• and even as it has taught you,
ye shall abide in him.
Recall that the word for “little children” here emphasises that one is under the care, discipline, instruction, direction and responsibility of another. In the same way that John addressed, for the young men, the issue of the wicked one's attempts to divert by false teaching, he takes up this matter also with reference to the little children. But the resources identified are different. For the young men it was that the word of God dwelt in them. For the little children it is that the Spirit of God dwells in them. It is not that He doesn't dwell in young men – but by virtue of increased maturity they are addressed as having responsibility to know the word themselves. The Holy Spirit preserves little children from false teaching in a special and tender way. But young men must more directly face their responsibility to know the scriptures, to not be like babes tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. It is a sad thing when believers who should be young men take the ground of little children, claiming that they don't need anyone to teach them. This isn't a status upon which to rest – it is an encouragement to those who have not yet had time, opportunity and experience to learn. It is a gracious provision the Holy Spirit provides. As we mature we dare not abuse the grace that has made this provision.
Although the Holy Spirit acts in a special preserving way towards young believers a warning is nevertheless given to them. Provisions of grace do not remove the need for personal exercise and faithfulness.
Many think that this refers to grace as the last dispensation but this does not fit the context here. John uses the word ‘hour' as a period characterised by one thing. In the context he tells us what that one thing is. It is not the outflow of grace but rather the coming of many antichrists.
Although the truth of the Lord's coming is not a prominent theme in this epistle, the expression “the last hour” shows how perfectly consistent Scripture is in the way it deals with any truth. The Lord Jesus has promised to come quickly. The apostles expected His coming at any moment – as can be recognised by the use of expressions such as, “we, the living, who remain to the coming of the Lord,” (1 Thess.4:15) and by the Lord having spoken of the possibility of John abiding till He come (John 21:22-23). We likewise have the privilege of anticipating the Lord's coming at any moment. But there are also scriptures which speak of the ruin of the church, of apostacy, of wheat and tares, of perilous times in the Christian profession. How is it to be understood that on the one hand the Lord could have come at any moment and on the other that the predicted ruin must first take place? Simply in this – that before the apostolic company had passed away every feature of apostacy and ruin had already showed its face. John said, “it is the last hour”. And thus the Lord Himself has left us with resources in His word for every aspect of our Christian pathway in the midst of the ruin that exists.
Here is another remarkable example of the consistency of Scripture with respect to teaching on a particular subject. The word here, “antichrist,” is used exclusively by the apostle John in his letters – but the person this word describes is foretold in many places under many different titles. You can use a concordance to look them up yourself: the son of perdition; the man of sin; the lawless one; he who comes in his own name; the false prophet; a beast out of the earth; the king; the idol shepherd; the wicked.
Each of these expressions defines a particular feature of his character according to the context of the passage that speaks of him. Although John's term is unique, the person he speaks of was well known – well known even amongst little children, the babes in Christ! Prophetic truth is not to be relegated to a place of “advanced teaching” to be reserved for mature believers alone. It is to be taught and known and understood amongst new believers. It shapes the mind, forms Christian character, guides the walk, warns of dangers and pitfalls and preserves against a multitude of doctrinal errors. What a shame and a disgrace that prophetic teaching is avoided by many believers – and in particular by many who teach the word!
The “little children” knew of the predicted coming of antichrist. Not in those terms, but they knew the truth of it. Because of this knowledge, John was able to build on what they knew to introduce warnings appropriate to the particular condition of things surrounding them. (Notice that the application of a truth is always subsequent to the knowledge of its proper interpretation – always! Beware of trying to make something out of a verse as a means of guidance without first knowing what it is actually teaching in its own context and in its place in the whole scope of Scripture.)
John's application here helps to understand a point scholars often make concerning the prefix “anti” – that it can mean both “instead of” or “against”. The Antichrist, the False Prophet of the future will set himself up in the place of Christ – both against Him and instead of Him. But in the application here we also learn that persons who do not necessarily falsely claim to be Christ can be characteristically antichrists – not necessarily instead of Him (for example by professing to be the Messiah) but against Him by their false teaching and practice.
from among us, of us, with us
It is apparent from these verses that a number had departed from the christian company and that this departure was well known. It is a sad thing when believers stay away from Christian meetings. But here the issue is something different – not just staying away but going out. Not backsliding but apostatising. Their teaching and their practice – going out – made it apparent that they were not saved. Dear young believer, do you stay away from the meetings? Do you feel discouraged, or disinterested, or perhaps even not fit to be present? It is at times like this that you most need the company of the saints! “With us,” the apostle says. Being “with us” is one proof that you are “of us”. Don't stay away from us. The outside place is the place rightly reserved for apostates.
Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don't need to go to the meetings because I have the Holy Spirit within me and He teaches me everything I need”? Perhaps you have even said it yourself. How dare anyone twist and pervert the scriptures in this way! How dare anyone blame the Holy Spirit for their own backsliding ways! This is certainly not the intent of what John says. He speaks to young believers who were amongst the “us” he was “with”. “With us”! Commit yourself absolutely and wholeheartedly to the company of your brethren. This is normal Christianity and it is in this context that John addresses these words to young Christians.
unction from the Holy One
This unusual word “unction” literally refers to the oil with which annointing was performed. It opens up a field of meditation that links together Old Testament types and New Testament doctrines in order to stimulate, establish, assure and challenge us.
In the Old Testament priests, kings, prophets and cleansed lepers were anointed with oil. In the New Testament Christ (Acts 10:38) and individual Christians (2 Corinthians 1:21-22) are anointed with the Holy Spirit. This helps us to see that anointing with oil is a type (a figure used by God for our learning) of anointing with the Holy Spirit.
“One distinguishing mark of the children of God in this dispensation is the anointing from the Holy One – the Holy Spirit. Even the inexperienced babe has it. By the Spirit of God who dwells in the bodies of all believers now, the ear of the child of God is empowered to hear the truth revealed, by which the hand is strengthened to do His commandments, and the feet energized to tread the path of faith. Ear, hand and feet having been purchased with the precious blood of Christ; the Spirit uses them in the interests of the truth of God. The child of God then has an ear consecrated to the truth. The Spirit who uses his ear is his capacity and power to hear the truth (v.20). By their abandonment of the truth, the apostates make it manifest that they lack this distinctive mark of the Christian. They lack the ability to hear the truth.” (C.Crain – Readings on the First Epistle of John)
But further, the words “unction” ( chrisma ), “Christ” and “christian” all have the same root. “Christ” means “anointed”. As one body formed by the baptism of the Holy Spirit the assembly is termed “the Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13. Having an unction from the Holy One the little children were inwardly marked out as belonging to the Christian company. Continuing “with us” they were outwardly marked out as belonging to the Christian company.
know all things
Because they possessed the Holy Spirit they had the capacity to know all things. The Lord had promised His disciples that the Holy Spirit, when come, would guide into all the truth (John 16:13).
Remember that there are two different words for “know”. The word used here is the one for intuitive knowledge (in contrast to knowledge acquired by learning). The Holy Spirit gives the inward capability for judging as to whether what is taught is true or false. Apostate teachers do not have this capability because they do not have the Holy Spirit. But the youngest believer has both.
John mentions the truth in a variety of ways throughout this epistle:
1:6 refers to practising the truth
1:8 and 2:4 refer to the truth being in us
2:21 refers firstly to knowing the truth and secondly to a lie being not of the truth
3:18 refers to loving in truth
3:19 refers to us being of the truth
4:6 refers to the spirit of truth
and in 5:6 the Spirit is the truth
Simply defined, truth is that which enables anything to be seen in its right proportions. Falsehood, in whatever form it takes – religious, social, political, philosophical – puts things out of proportion. In particular it inflates man out of proportion and it minimises God out of proportion. The unbeliever has a false conception of God and does not know the truth. Likewise the apostate teacher.
In this tangible and concrete world we often struggle to grasp moral concepts. We find it relatively easy to define concrete nouns (e.g. desk, chair, book) – but almost impossible to define abstract nouns (e.g. love, life, light, truth). Truth is difficult to define, but think of it in this way and each one of the verses listed above is more readily grasped: truth defines relationships between things, it enables anything to be seen in its right proportions.
The Spirit is the truth – in the believer. Christ is the truth – as an object outside us to be engaged and occupied with. God is not said to be the truth. He is the Absolute. Christ and the Spirit enable us to see and comprehend everything in its right place relative to Him.
With the Holy Spirit indwelling, little children can thus be said to know the truth.
Any lie puts things out of right proportion and is therefore not of the truth. Whilst this is the case generally, the specific context here has reference to any teaching about Christ. Habitually we tend to refer to doctrines as either truth or error. This passage would suggest that we should be more bold – is it truth or is it a lie?
In these verses three denials are distinctly listed. First, denying that Jesus is the Christ; secondly denying the Father and the Son; thirdly denying the Son. In the first case the one denying is a liar; in the second the one denying is antichrist; in the third the one denying does not have the Father either.
The first case is specific – “denies that…”. The other two are general – “denies…” – without saying exactly what is denied concerning the Father and the Son.
In the third case a clause is added to show that confession is the converse of denial. One cannot merely say, “I'll keep quiet about the Son. I'll just keep my views to myself.” No. For one to demonstrate that he has both the Father and the Son there must be a clear and adequate confession concerning the Son. When He was on earth the Lord Jesus confronted the Pharisees with the question, “What think ye concerning the Christ? Whose son is he?” their answer that He was Son of David was not satisfactory and the Lord challenged them further. They were bound by His quotation of Old Testament scripture to recognise that which was unpalatable to them – that He was not only Son of David but that, David having spoken of Him as Lord, He had a sonship that was pre-incarnate. They foolishly perceived that silence on this issue was their only way out of their dilemma. (Read Matthew 22:41-46) Concerning the Son one must confess. It is not satisfactory merely to refrain from denying.
As for you
It is beautiful the way John uses emphatic pronouns – here clearly contrasting the young believers and antichrists. Without saying more about it, here is a hint to assist in your personal study of scripture: watch the pronouns and watch the way they are used contrastingly – we, you, they, he. When a passage has a clearly contrasted “we” and “you”, look to see if it is we apostles, we Jews or we Christians. Attentiveness concerning this will help in getting the true bearing of a passage.
From the beginning
Compared to the first verse in this book, there is a difference in the use of this phrase here. There it was the beginning of the manifestation of eternal life in this world in the Person of Christ. Here it relates to the beginning of the spiritual history of each individual – but that is as far as the difference goes, because the spiritual history of every believer starts with the Person of Christ. The truth of His Person was upheld and taught by the apostles. All that He is embodied in His own words (John 8:25). The One who was manifested here, who was declared by the apostles, upon whom we believed to obtain life – all this truth concerning Him is to abide in us.
What lay at the basis of our spiritual history is the same thing that will sustain us throughout our Christian lives. John's focus is the substance of Christianity – not merely that we once believed (past tense) but that we believe (present tense). Not merely that we started with a right apprehension of Christ, having trusted Him as Saviour as presented in the gospel, but allowing that word to remain in us as sustaining power. If … then. If that word abides in us, then we abide in the Son and in the Father.
The thought of abiding does not bear simple definition. It is a wonderful two-way flow of communion and interaction and sustaining power. My hand is not me and I am not my hand, but when my hand writes, I write. Without me it cannot write and without it I cannot write. In writing it expresses my thoughts but it cannot think. It abides in me and I abide in it. This is but a feeble illustration of abiding – because for the word of God to abide in us and for us to abide in Him it requires conscious activity of mind and heart on our part. Meditation and communion are necessary.
This is the promise. He does not just say that He has promised eternal life to us – but the preceeding thoughts define what eternal life means in this setting. Not the future possession of eternal life, not the present possession of eternal life, but the practical possession of eternal life. It is only practically enjoyed when His word in its purity as sound doctrine abides in us and when we consequenly abide in the Son and in the Father. This is eternal life. How remeniscent of what John recorded of the Lord's prayer to the Father in John 17:3 – “this is the eternal life, that they should know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Not just knowing about Them, not just saying I know Them because I once believed and have been saved, but enjoying that practical knowledge, that intimacy, that abiding. And this – Christianity at its highest and best – is the proper portion of the little children, the youngest believers in Christ!
These verses form a recap or summary of what John has said to the little children – calling to mind and drawing together what he has already said. How needful in teaching repetition is. Such a summary gives clear indication that this section is now at its conclusion.
Children: Three things to regulate the life
1 John 2:28 – 3:24
Having detailed the three generations of the children of God, John now takes up what is generally applicable to all. The three verses at the beginning of this section introduce three themes which address things that are to regulate our practical lives. Also in this section there are three subsections that each commence with, “Children” (2:28; 3:7; 3:18. As a helpful distinction, note that in the next section there are three subsections commencing with, “Beloved” — 4:1; 4:7; 4:11.)
The subdivisions throughout this epistle are not rigid but fluid. They flow into one another. For example, the matter of abiding — addressed in the section just concluded — leads into the first theme of this section: His coming (or, manifestation). It also comes in again to conclude the entire section (3:24).
The three themes are:
• (2:28) His coming. More detail is given in 3:2-6.
• (2:29) Begotten of Him. More detail is given in 3:7-12.
• (3:1) The Father's love and a contrary world. More detail is given in 3:13-24.
His coming (1 st theme – introduction)
This is a wonderful Bible word that both captivates our spiritual attention and repels our fleshly instincts. When considering what it is to “abide in Him”, our natural response, like Peter, is “depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”
Whilst some of references to “abiding” in Scripture clearly relate to the position we are in as Christians, most of them relate to our practical Christian lives. What does it mean to abide? It means to maintain a conscious dependent link. “ We are called in the active reverence of our hearts to stay continually with Christ; to abide in Him; to draw strength continually from Him in active diligence of heart .” (J.N.Darby). To abide in Him, then, is to maintain conscious, active fellowship with Him in a spirit of dependence and obedience.
The following remarks have been distilled from William Kelly's exposition on this book:
There are two terms used in this verse which are not precisely the same. Firstly, “that if he be manifested – fanerwyh .” Then, “at His coming – parousia .” “ Coming ” in this verse is not the word normally used to express “coming” and nothing else, as in John 14:3, 1 Cor.11:26, and often in Revelation. The Lord says, “I am coming ( ercomai ) again,” meaning the act of coming. But there is not merely this act, but the state of His presence ( parousia ). It is His presence when He comes, but it often means not exactly when He was coming, but the state that ensues after He comes . The word “ presence ” ( parousia) in that sense may be either for the heavenly people or for the earthly. For instance in the Epistle of James “the coming ( parousia) of the Lord is drawn nigh” is the earthly side, as when the Lord says “the Son of man at his coming.” His manifestation – fanerwyh also is that further effect of His presence.
But the word “ presence ” also embraces the act of His coming to receive us to Himself for the Father's house before He is manifested; in other words, when the term parousia is not qualified by anything that indicates manifestation, it is the Lord gathering us to Himself above by His presence, as in 1 Thess.4, 2 Thess.2:1. Unmodified, it is applied simply to His presence in grace. But where our responsibility comes in, there is always not merely the coming but also the manifestation — and this is the meaning here in verse 28.
“ In general, those who make use of the verse think that it means that we, or any other Christians, should not be thus put to shame. What the apostle really says is, Abide “ye” in him, that “we” may not be ashamed, those of whom they were the work in the Lord. For it would have been no small affront to the truth, and a very great pain to the workman, that any who had appeared to receive the truth should give it up. ” (W. Kelly)
The Lord's coming presented in this way here puts us in a position of practical Christian responsibility. To abide in Christ is not only a Christian privilege but is also a Christian responsibility, in view of the day when the Lord Jesus will manifest His glory to this world in which He has been rejected.
Begotten of Him (2 nd theme – introduction)
This is the first use in this letter of the word righteous in relation to believers. The two previous occasions spoke of “Jesus Christ the righteous” and of God as being “faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins”. Here we learn that He is righteous and that His children take character from Him. The emphasis here is on practical righteousness in all the relationships of life – not on the position of righteousness we have before God by faith as a result of justification.
Practical righteousness for a child of God is habitual and characteristic. It is not spasmodic; it is the practise of those who have been begotten of Him. They are not perfect in it — only One ever was. But as begotten of God they have His nature. He is righteous. So of necessity those begotten of Him are characterised by righteousness.
The practice of righteousness begins with God and then extends into all life's relationships. No unbeliever can be said to practise righteousness because they have never begun at the beginning. They do not practise what is right in relation to God. The Word of God teaches practical righteousness in every relationship of life: husband - wife; parent - child; employee - employer; ruler - subject; brother - brother etc. Righteousness is consistency in any relationship in which we are placed. It must start firstly with our relationship with God.
This is the first of five instances of the verb “begotten” expressed in the perfect tense – “has been begotten”. See also 3:9 ; 4:7 ; 5:1 ; 5:18 . The features identified in these verses show us things that are the fruits of new birth. Having been born again by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit we have the capacity for things we never had as a result of our natural birth. Without the new birth we do not have the capacity to practice righteousness.
The Father's Love and a contrary world (3 rd theme – introduction)
Chapter 3 Verse 1
Some translations mistakenly use the word “sons” in this verse. In John's epistle there is only one Son – the Lord Jesus Himself, and believers are not designated sons. In Paul's writings there is a distinction made between children (indicating the immaturity and the imperfection of the relationship into which Old Testament believers were brought) and sons (indicating the dignity and nearness of the new relationship made possible by the finished work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). This distinction does not exist in John's writings. With John there is no higher place, no nearer relationship, than being children of God. No greater expression of the Father's love! What manner of love! Think of this for a moment. The manner of the Father's love is that He has brought us into a relationship of nearness and dearness. He has not merely rescued us from our sins, not merely provided us with an escape from hell, but He has made us (and called us) His children. What manner of love!
For this reason
Notice again the way these themes run into one another. He (Christ) is going to be manifested and we abide in Him (2:28). We have been begotten of Him (God) and we practise righteousness like Him (2:29). We have been loved by the Father and we are an enigma to the world (3:1). And then in the next verse (3:2) elements of all three are drawn together – children of God, Christ's manifestation, seeing Him as He is. The world doesn't know Him but we shall see Him as He is.
Here are two characteristic features of John: he merges thoughts together, travelling from one theme to another and back again; and speaking of “Him” without distinctly identifying whether he means the Father or the Son. Here in verse 1, it seems that it was the Son that the world did not know, but then He was the One who said, “Ye know neither me nor my Father. If ye had known me, ye would have known also my Father.” (John 8:19) In this beautiful and triumphant section of John's gospel the Lord shows that a primary reason for the world's unbelief and rejection was His relationship with the Father. “For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew Him not.” The Father has brought us into an intimate relationship with Himself, and the more we enjoy it, the more we delight in it, the less we will be understood by this world.
His coming (1 st theme – detail) – 3:2-6
The truth of the Lord's coming regulates our practical lives as Christians. His coming in it's various aspects is presented in the New Testament in connection with almost every aspect of Christian life and behaviour. Don't ever grow tired of this theme. Don't listen to the rationalistic ideas of those who profess to be Christians and yet despise this truth. Don't think it's a subject only for the mature and the advanced. It is your helmet – a protection for the mind against all kinds of falsehood and all manner of wrong influences. “Putting on…as a helmet the hope of salvation”, “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed”, “Christ…shall appear to those that look for Him the second time without sin for salvation.” (1 Thess.5:8; Rom.13:11; Heb.9:28.)
Christianity functions by the power of attraction. This verse does not mean that because you know the Lord is coming you try to make yourself pure. That was the way the law worked, the principle by which it functioned. No, this is pure Christianity, pure grace. You have this hope in you as a living, practical reality and the result is that you are purified. What a difference! You don't say, “The Lord is coming, therefore I'd better purify myself”, you say, “Lord, I'm looking forward to Your coming” full stop . ( period – for American readers). And in saying this, in having it in your heart as a living reality, there is a purifying effect – this causes the purifying. Not your efforts to be pure, but the living hope of the Lord's coming in your heart. It is by having this hope in you that you purify yourself.
I'm waiting for Thee, Lord,
Thy beauty to see, Lord;
I'm waiting for Thee, for Thy coming again…
Whilst Thou art away, Lord,
I stumble and stray, Lord;
Oh! Hasten the day of Thy coming again.
(Hymn 440, Spiritual Songs)
sin is lawlessness
We are meditating on a section of Scripture that presents to us distinctive Christian truth – not Jewish truth. Some Bible translators, influenced by the Jewish thinking that dominates theological training institutions, have translated these words, “sin in the transgression of the law.” Romans 5:13-14 should be sufficient to demonstrate that this is a completely inadequate definition of sin.
for until law sin was in the world; but sin is not put to account when there is no law; but death reigned from Adam until Moses, even upon those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam's transgression
Until law! Sin was in the world when law was not. Sin goes much deeper than transgression of a published commandment. It is the principle of insubjection of the heart to God. Lawlessness. It dominates society. It characterises every human being born into this world. “An high look, and a proud heart, and the plowing of the wicked, is sin.” (Proverbs 21:4 KJV). For the wicked, the unsaved, everything they do is sin. The farmer going out to plough, to make a living to care for his family, if he does not know God, if he has rejected Christ as Saviour, sins by plowing! It is living life without reference to God.
As believers we should let these things press deeply on our hearts. Do we live our lives without reference to God? Do we go on from day to day without a consciousness of our relationship with Him and our responsibility to Him? When we do, this is sin. Even doing “good” things – without reference to Him – is sin. But by contrast, “Whoever abides in Him, does not sin” (v.6).
These things are intensely practical. John writes in the abstract, touching on the practical bearing of things. Verse 6 goes on – “whoever sins, has not seen Him or known Him.” Even as believers, if we conduct ourselves without reference to Him – not seeing Him or knowing Him in practical ongoing relationship – sin will be the outcome.
Begotten of Him (2 nd theme – detail) – 3:7-12
The next thing to regulate our lives in a practical way is the fact that we have been begotten of God and are thus the children of God. Three things are prominent in this section: practising righteousness (not practising sin), “he cannot sin”, and loving our brother. The devil and the children of the devil are also prominent. The children of God and the children of the devil are contrasted.
Paul – “by one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death; and thus death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” (Romans 5:12)
John – He that practises sin is of the devil; for from the beginning the devil sins. “Ye are of the devil as [your] father, and ye desire to do the lusts of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has not stood in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks falsehood, he speaks of what is his own; for he is a liar and its father.” (John 8:44).
Why does Paul trace sin back to Adam as a source, and John trace sin back to the devil as a source? The following extract from a very old writing helps to get a feel for an answer to this question:
“He that doeth sin, is of the devil, because the devil sinneth from the beginning.” “Is of the devil:” ye know what he means: by imitating the devil. For the devil made no man, begat no man, created no man: but whoso imitates the devil, that person, as if begotten of him, becomes a child of the devil; by imitating him, not literally by being begotten of him. (Augustine: Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John).
John puts things into black and white terms to demonstrate the practical nature of things. We rightly perceive the devil as an abhorrent character, but we too easily make light of sin. In practical terms, anyone committing sin is demonstrating exactly the features that characterise the devil! When a believer sins, is this the activity of the nature received from God by new birth? Clearly not! It is the outflow of the nature inherited from Adam. But it is also the replication of the characteristics of the devil. For the human race, Adam is the source of sin. But in a practical sense, the devil is the pattern of sin. Anyone sinning – believer or unbeliever – is following the devil's pattern. A knowledge of these things is intended to make sin even more abhorrent in our eyes.
Many seek to understand and explain this passage based on the tense of the verb ‘practise'. They suggest that all these things can be understood by taking account of a persons over-riding habits. If the over-riding habits of a person are righteous then you can be pretty sure they are begotten of God. But the expression “he cannot sin” in verse 9 seems to render this viewpoint impossible.
The whole section cannot be understood by making it descriptive of the over-riding habits of a person. But it can be understood by making it descriptive of the nature received from God. Who is it that cannot sin? The believer? No – or chapter 1:1-10 would be contradicted. It is the nature received from God that cannot sin.
love one another
In this context it is believers that we are to love. We are to love those who are the children of God. Love may be demonstrated in many different ways but the example given here challenges us in connection with our inward responses and motivations. Cain killed Abel because he was jealous of his brother, because he compared himself with Abel and found that Abel's works were righteous and his were not.
Have you ever had the impression that the thing that has caused more damage to the Christian testimony than anything else is petty jealousy? It lay at the heart of the failure of the Corinthians: “I'm not like you, so I'm inadequate and therefore I won't participate,” or, “You're not like me, so you're obviously inadequate and I don't need you”! Comparing ourselves with one another, setting one against another, trying to outdo one another; all these things are the opposite of love and are in principle the attitude that motivated Cain.
We are sometimes apt to think that the way to show love is by being charitable or hospitable, or by serving devotedly in a pastoral or teaching capacity. But read 1 Corinthians 13. When a brother's life, or work, or words expose something in my heart so that my conscience is challenged before God, how do I feel about him? When a brother's service for the Lord seems to prosper in a way that mine does not, how do I feel about him?
The Father's Love and a contrary world (3rd theme – detail) – 3:13-24
Here again two sections merge gradually – the transition being gradual rather than abrupt. The verse introducing the second theme (2:29) links righteousness with being begotten of God. The verse introducing the third theme (3:1) contrasts the Father's love and the contrary attitude of the world. In previous section, which gives the details of the second theme, the transition into the third theme begins at the end of verse 10, where love is introduced in addition to righteousness.
At the beginning of this study we noticed that John addresses his readers three times as “children” and three times as “beloved”. Strikingly, in this section he uses a different term again – “brethren”. This gives greater emphasis to the theme of love in a contrary world. The Father's love has made us His children. All His children are our brethren. We are to love the brethren.
the world (v.14)
In the introduction the expression was “the world knows us not”. Here it goes further – hatred. Again we are reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus in John's gospel. “If I had not done among them the works which no other one has done, they had not had sin; but now they have both seen and hated both me and my Father.” (John 15:24).
The hatred of the world adds greater intensity to the need to love the brethren, and this love gives not assurance of salvation but proof of life. It is John's equivalent of James' teaching, “Shew me thy faith without works, and I from my works will show thee my faith.” (James 2:18). And as a practical demonstration of love, John identifies the same sorts of things that James uses as examples of works. (See James 2:14-17.) In the previous section, where John began to introduce the theme of love, the emphasis was on inward responses and motivations. Here in verses 16-17 the emphasis is on outward practical demonstration.
In making matters practical John shows the characteristics of an action or attitude in two ways – by tracing it to its source, or by showing its bearing (or potential consequential outcome). An example of ‘source' is v.8, “He that practises sin is of the devil.” An example of ‘bearing' is v.15, “Every one that hates his brother is a murderer.”
Would you dare say, “Well I hate my brother but I'm certainly not a murderer”? John's answer is that the very thing that animates the murderer is animating you.
“Ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him ” has often been misunderstood. It has been taken to mean that no murderer can be saved. Let us seek to understand what the apostle says. In the first place, he declares that “whosoever hates his brother is a murderer.” Is it not plain that the apostle points to the nature which characterizes one who, like Cain, is of the wicked one? Thus a man does not need to take the life of a fellow-man to be a murderer; he is that by the very fact that he possesses that nature. In this sense all men are murderers by their very nature since the fall. But when the grace of God lays hold of one who is such in the eyes of God, he is born anew, “born from above. ” He possesses a new nature, which now characterizes him in God's eyes. God looks upon him as having passed out of death into life. He no more looks at him according to the old nature which is still in him, but according to what he is as born of God. A new life dwells in him. It is in the character of this new life that God now views him. (C. Crain, Readings on Romans)
lay down our lives (v.16)
We might almost say that John hardly puts pen to page without using either of the above-mentioned extremes to characterise an action or attitude. We might understandably take the edge off his statement here by paraphrasing it in our minds that we should devote the activity of our lives to serving the brethren. But this is not what he says. Speaking plainly, he says we ought to die for them (not, of course, in a substitutionary way as Christ died for our sins, but nevertheless to actually lose our lives in death).
This is another example of ‘bearing'. Carried to its logical extreme, the attitude we have towards the brethren would take us this far – a willingness to lose our lives if necessary. It would be folly to take John's words literally and to say that any living Christian is a disobedient Christian because they have failed to carry out this verse as a commandment!
in deed and in truth (v.17-18)
We have previously noticed the link with James concerning the practical demonstration of love here. As that this study has already grown too long, to show the connection between these things and verses 19-22, I quote from one who has condensed many thoughts into a short space:
Now, if our brother has need, and we possess this world's good, but do not provide for his necessity, is that the divine love which made Christ lay down His life for us? It is by this real and practical love that we know we are in the truth, and that our heart is confirmed and assured before God. For if there is nothing on the conscience, we have confidence in His presence; but if our own heart condemns us, God knows yet more.
It is not here the means of being assured of our salvation, but of having confidence in the presence of God. We cannot have it with a bad conscience in the practical sense of the word, for God is always light and always holy.
We also receive all that we ask for, when we walk thus in love before Him, doing that which is pleasing in His sight; for thus walking in His presence with confidence, the heart and its desires respond to this blessed influence, being formed by the enjoyment of communion with Him in the light of His countenance. It is God who animates the heart; this life, and this divine nature, of which the epistle speaks, being in full activity and enlightened and moved by the divine presence in which it delights. Thus our requests are only for the accomplishment of desires that arise when this life, when our thoughts, are filled with the presence of God and with the communication of His nature. And He lends His power to the fulfilment of these desires, of which He is the source, and which are formed in the heart by the revelation of Himself (compare John 15:7). (J.N.Darby – Synopsis)
His commandment (v.23-24)
Two things are indicated here – believing on the name of God's Son, Jesus Christ, and loving one another. This is not a gospel preaching to the unsaved, it is a message to God's children. Just as our love for one another must be ongoing and practical, so must be our faith in Christ. Our Christian experience is not to be one of, “at some time in the past I believed”, but of “right now, at the present moment, I believe”. This is practical abiding in Him – and it is obedience to God's commandment.
and He in him (v.24)
There is a wonderful consequence to this practical abiding, this ongoing faith, this obedience to God's commandment: it is the consciousness of the presence and favour of the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. Beautifully once more John does not specifically identify who is meant by “He”. We can see why, when we consider the Lord's words in John, spoken in connection with His revelation of the truth about the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. “If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23).
A fitting thought upon which to conclude this study.
The Spirit of Truth and the Spirit of Error
1 John 4:1-6
Having mentioned the Holy Spirit in the last verse of chapter 3, John now provides a vital test to enable believers to verify whether various teachings come from Him or not.
He opens this section with “Beloved”. In this tender and caring way he addresses every single believer in Christ. In view of all the gross, the subtle, the false and misleading teachings that then existed, that still exist, and that will continue to spread, he shows his affection for God's true children by giving a warning and providing a test. Love does not refrain from warning. Wisdom does not focus merely on what is false but provides as a test that which is true.
The plethora of false teachings, of ideologies and “-isms” that purport to be Christian, is a source of perplexity to some believers. And further, that these things may be accepted by real believers, that genuine and earnest Christians may be led astray by them, is an utter mystery to many. On the contrary, we dare not underestimate rither the intensity of Satan's desire and ability to deceive, or the deceptive and desperately wicked character of the human heart. Who can know it? (Jer.17:9)
Jude, who also warns about false teachers and teachings, gives an instruction that is necessary to keep in mind as we proceed. “And of some have compassion, making a difference, but others save with fear, snatching them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” (v.22-23.) Believers who are unwittingly led astray need our compassion. Others may need our help to be set free from false teachings – but when this is the case we need to be extremely careful, “considering thyself lest thou also be tempted.”
“Spirit” is used in several ways in Scripture. The word may designate: the Holy Spirit – one of the three Persons of the Godhead (e.g. Rom.8:14); the human spirit – one of the three components of which all human beings are comprised (e.g. 1 Thess.5:23); the underlying principles, motivations or characteristics of a thing (e.g. Gal.6:1); a supernatural manifestation (e.g. 1 Cor.14:12); an evil spirit – a demonic being (Acts 16:18).
There is a question as to which meaning suits the context here. Many valued commentators jump to the conclusion that “spirits” in these verses refer to demonic beings. But this interpretation does not completely fit consistently throughout these six verses, and it would seem more appropriate to say that what is intended is the underlying principles, motivations or characteristics of teachings.
Without question, what underlies false teachings may be demonic influence (see 2 Cor.11:13-15). In 1 Timothy 4:1 the two things are linked but distinguished – “in latter times some shall apostatise from the faith, giving their mind to deceiving spirits and teachings of demons.” Deceiving spirits (the principles underlying false doctrines) could well be the consequence of teachings of demons (the direct intervention of these evil beings). The demon is the being, the spirit is the principle developed as a result of that being's activity.
In these six verses there are also spirits that are of God, spirits which confess Jesus Christ come in flesh. These are not demons, nor are they angels. They are the underlying principles, motivations or characteristics of teachings that are true and that result from the influence and power of the Holy Spirit. They are summarised under one heading – “the spirit of truth”.
Numerous authors acknowledge that by “spirits” here, the apostle means principles, tendencies, motivations or pretensions underlying teachings or doctrinal systems. Here are some examples:
“The spirits” are principles and tendencies in religion: these need to be tested, for earnestness and fervour are no guarantee of truth.… Every spirit (not so much the personal teacher as the principle or tendency of the doctrine)… (A.Plummer. The Pulpit Commentary on 1 Jn.4:1 and 3)
By "every spirit" he means, either every doctrine that is pretended to come from the Spirit of God, or every teacher, who professes to be qualified and sent by him, and to have his light, knowledge, and doctrine from him. (John Gill's Expositor)
In every age since the apostolic times, various systems of teachings have been urged upon the people of God. They are usually antichristian in character. They are usually commended as a perfecting of, or progress beyond, the Christian revelation. Their propagators claim to be taught by the Spirit of God. It becomes necessary therefore to test the teaching we are invited to receive. Our apostle warns against believing every spirit; he exhorts us to try them, to see whether they are of God (v.1). He gives us also the infallible tests by which to try the claims or pretensions of all who profess to speak for God. (C.Crain – Readings on 1 John)
It is persons who confess. It is only through what they confess that we have any means of discerning the spirit that animates them. There are moments of crisis (suggested by the need for overcoming in verse 4) in our individual Christian lives and in our collective testimony when it becomes essential to elicit a clear and open confession from persons who represent themselves as faithful believers. At such moments the refusal to make a clear and plain confession in itself discloses the spirit animating a person.
At a moment of crisis, someone who says, “who are you to ask me to confess what I believe?” or, “I'm offended that you doubt my integrity,” or, “I promise never to teach anything unorthodox!” is, by their very refusal to confess, actually manifesting that they are not animated by the spirit of truth. “Hereby ye know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses Jesus Christ come in flesh is of God.”
Jesus Christ come in flesh
What kind of confession then is required? What is to be the substance of it? This expression, “Jesus Christ come in flesh” is so vast, so far-reaching as to encompass all the great truths concerning who He is and what He has done.
“In flesh” – His true and perfect humanity; “come in flesh” – His incarnation. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). We, ordinary human beings, did not become flesh. We did not exist prior to our conception and birth into this world. But He did. He became flesh. “Jesus Christ come in flesh” therefore encompasses also where He came from and who He was that came. It encompasses His deity, His eternal being, His eternal Sonship. Further, “ come in flesh” denotes His work when He was here – His sinless, spotless life, and His sacrificial death in all its perfection and perpetual value. Further again, “ come in flesh” implies more than merely “ came in flesh”. It is not merely the historical fact but the abiding results – the truth that He is still a Man, that although now raised from the dead (Luke 24:39) and in heaven (Hebrews 10: 20) He is still “in flesh”.
His greatness and glory, Who He ever was, what He became, what He has done! Oh how too often we glibly refer to “His Person and work” as being the touchstone for Christian fellowship! But what reverence, what a spirit of worship and awe this theme should inspire in us. And what a sense of repulsion it should strike into our hearts when any professing Christian refuses to confess Him thus.
ye ; they ; we
This section concludes with another of John's triplets. It is with fatherly tenderness that he has written these warnings – not to create doubts or fears in the minds of simple-hearted believers. This can be clearly seen in verse 4, “ Ye are of God, children, and have overcome them, because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.”
For believers the victory has been already won. It is not a question of whether we can win arguments against false teachers or whether we can persuade others to accept the truth. Neither is it that we will overcome them at some future time. No. We have overcome them. How? Because we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us – greater than he that is in the world. The overcoming here is not a battle that we fight and win. It is the assured fact of the permanent possession of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Wonderful assurance!
Yet again, lest we be tempted to think that “overcoming” means attaining a following of multitudes with willing ears to hear the truth, he shows that they (the false prophets) are the ones who receive this kind of response. They do so because their speaking leaves the world where it is, being in spirit and in character identical to all that makes the world tick.
“They are of the world; for this reason they speak as of the world, and the world hears them.” A.T.Robertson, in his comments on the translation of the Greek words here, says that in the original there is no ‘as', but that is the idea, for their talk proceeds from the world and wins a ready hearing. The false prophets and the world are in perfect unison. ” Even if such teachers of falsehood are true believers, their speaking is just as if they were unbelievers. This is the case both with the content of their message and with their methods of getting it across. John's standard should be our standard – as indeed it was Paul's:
And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and my word and my preaching, not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; that your faith might not stand in men's wisdom, but in God's power. (1 Cor.2:3-5)
And it is in this sense that John here says, “we”. We apostles. Verse 6 is one of the many instances of God's governmental dealings with respect to the reception of His word and the response to His claims. For other instances, see 1 Corinthians 14:37-38; Revelation 22:11; Matthew 15:13-14. A right response to the word of God is proof of the work of God in the hearer.
A thorn between two roses
The first six verses of 1 John 4 are striking on account of their setting! Either side of them the theme is love – but here we get a warning as to false teachers. It shows that although love is to be without partiality, its activities are not to be indiscriminate. It is rather, as taught by the paragraph concluding chapter 3, to be governed by, “keeping His commandments”.
What, then, is the practical application of this? We see it right here. Is there not a distorted view of love that really equates to latitudinarianism? It is sometimes possible for people to support their false views from Scripture – provided they can find a suitable verse to agree with them. Here's an example of one from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love… believes all things”. By taking this verse out on its own you can make it say almost anything you want. But take it in connection with the entire scope of the revealed mind of God in His word and it starts to take shape within boundaries that He Himself has set. The apostle of love, the disciple whom Jesus loved, says here, “believe not every spirit”.
to be continued