Study Notes on First John
STUDY NOTES ON “FIRST JOHN”
by Dr. D. W. Ekstrand
(This study utilizes the NASB text)
Background – At the time John was writing, a false sect had arisen which became known as Gnosticism (gnosis means “knowledge” in Greek). These Gnostics professed to be Christians but claimed to have additional knowledge, superior to what the apostles taught. They claimed that a person could not be completely fulfilled until he had been initiated into their “deeper truths.” Some taught that matter was evil – this was a common philosophical belief in the first century – and that therefore the Man Jesus could not be God. In order to reconcile Christianity with this belief, the Gnostics made a distinction between Jesus and the Christ – “Christ” was a divine emanation which came upon Jesus at His baptism and left before His death, perhaps in the Garden of Gethsemane. According to them, Jesus did die, but the Christ did not die. They insisted that the heavenly Christ was too holy and spiritual to be soiled by permanent contact with human flesh — in short, they denied the incarnation, that Jesus Christ is both God and Man, which is the heart and soul of the gospel! The apostle John realized that the Gnostics were not true Christ-ians, so he warned his readers against them by showing that these people did not have the marks of true children of God. According to John, a person either is a child of God or he is not – there is no in-between ground. That is why this Epistle is filled with such extreme opposites as light and darkness, love and hatred, truth and lie, death and life, God and the devil.
At the same time it should be noted that the apostle likes to describe people by their habitual behavior. In discerning between Christians and non-Christians, for instance, he does not base his conclusion on a single act of sin, but rather on what characterizes the person. Even a broken clock tells the correct time twice in every twenty-four hours! But a good clock tells the correct time regularly. So the general, day-by-day behavior of a Christian is holy and righteous, and by this he is known as a child of God. John uses the word “know” a number of times throughout his letter; the Gnostics professed to know the truth, but John here sets forth the true facts of the Christian faith, which can be known with certainty (cf. 5:13).
1:1-4 – The Prologue: Christian Fellowship. The foundation of true Christian fellowship is the person of Jesus Christ; there can be no true fellowship with those who hold false views concerning Him. The word “fellowship” in Greek is koinonia; it literally means to “share in common;” every believer shares the life of Christ in common with every other believer; genuine believers have actually become “partakers of Christ’s divine nature” (cf. 2 Pet 1:4); as such, they are “one with Christ” (cf. Jn 17:11; 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 2:20; 3:28); it is the essence of who Christians are.
Verses 1-2 teach the “eternal nature” of Jesus Christ and the reality of His “incarnation.” The reality of His incarnation is indicated by the fact that the apostles heard Him, saw Him with their own eyes, and actually touched Him. The Word of Life, as He is referred to, was not a mere passing illusion, but was a real person in a body of flesh. In his gospel account, John also referred to Jesus as the “Word.” He began his gospel with these words: “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… all things came into being by Him… in Him was life… . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (cf. Jn 1:1-4, 14; 14:6; Heb 1:1-3) — Jesus is the Word who brings life. The eternal life that was manifested to the apostles is now declared by them… that they may have fellowship with God and with all other believers (1:3). By referring to the Lord as “Jesus Christ,” John is bearing witness not only to His humanity (Jesus), but also to His deity (Christ). That’s why the Nicene Creed refers to Jesus as “very God of very God” and yet truly human. But why does John write concerning the subject of fellowship? The reason is that “our joy may be made full!” (1:4). John knew that the world was not capable of providing true and lasting joy for the human heart; this joy can only come through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
1:5-2:2 – How Fellowship is Maintained. Fellowship describes a situation where two or more persons “share things in common” – in short, it is a communion or a partnership. John now instructs his readers as to the requirements for fellowship with God. In doing so, he appeals to the teachings of the Lord Jesus when He was here on earth – the essence of what He taught was that by nature God is light and in Him is no darkness at all (1:5); that is, God is absolutely holy, righteous, and pure, and completely untouched by evil or sin. Therefore it follows that one must himself be pure and righteous if he is to have fellowship with God, because light and darkness cannot co-exist in a relationship of oneness. Verses 6-10 contain three contrasts between words and works, or saying one thing and doing another. Following each contrast is the result of the action. Following are “three false claims” —
A. The first is to “claim fellowship with God” while failing to reflect His moral character (vv. 6-7). If a man walks in darkness, he is not in fellowship with God; therefore a man who says he has fellow-ship with God and habitually walks in darkness is not saved (1:6). The verb “walk” is in the present tence and refers to a way of life or daily practice; thus, to habitually walk in darkness means to live a life that is contrary to the moral character of God, to live a sinful life. To claim fellowship with God without living a moral life or practicing the truth is to live a lie. On the other hand, those who habitually walk in the light (present tense – the saved) have fellowship with God (1:7). So, John is telling us that a man is either in the light or in darkness; if he is in the light, he is a member of God’s family; if he is in darkness, he doesn’t have anything in common with God, because there is no dark-ness in God at all. To claim fellowship (oneness) with God, yet live a life that is in juxtaposition to the truth is a lie, a complete contradiction.
Those who walk in the light (i.e., those who live in such a way that they are enlightened by the truth of who God is) have fellowship with one another (this may refer to fellowship with God rather than other believers), and the blood of Jesus Christ continually cleanses them from all sin (present tense verb – 1:7). That’s the constant state of the believer. God’s forgiveness is based on the blood of His Son that was shed at Calvary – that blood provided God with a righteous basis upon which to forgive sins (cf. Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:22). Our fellowship with God is dependent on walking in God’s light; embracing the truth of the gospel of Christ; light reveals sin for what it is; all believers acknowledge their sinfulness. Only the blood of Christ can cleanse us from all sin, and make it possible for imperfect believers to have fellowship with a holy God. Of course, we must “confess” [agree with God about] our sins before we can experience the joy of God’s fellowship and forgiveness – John deals with that in v. 9. Every believer lives in the realm of light (vs. darkness) and is in a constant state of fellowship/partnership with God (vs. Satan); when he sins, this state of existence doesn’t change, but the “joy of that state” does; hence, the need to confess our sins — the “joy of fellowship” is impeded by sin… but the “state of fellowship” is not.
B. The second is to claim that “we have no sin” (vv. 8-9). Fellowship with God requires that we acknowledge the truth concerning ourselves. For instance, to deny that we have a “sinful nature” means we’re simply deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. To have no sin is to have no need of a Savior, and that would make the coming of Jesus unnecessary. Notice that John makes a distinction between “sin” (1:8) and “sins” (1:9) – sin refers to our corrupt, evil nature; sins refers to the evil acts we have done. Conversion does not mean the eradication of the sin nature; rather, it means the implanting of the new divine nature (cf. Rom 6:4; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:24; Heb 12:10; 2 Pet 1:4) with power (Spirit) to live victoriously over indwelling sin (sin nature)
In order for us to walk day by day in “joyful communion with God” and fellow believers, obviously, we can’t be living a life of sin. Hence, we must “confess our sins” (i.e, “agree with God about our sins” – or, literally, “say the same thing about our sins” that God says about them). “He who covers his sins will not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them will have mercy” (cf. Prv 28:13; Mt 6:12). When we agree with God about our sins, we can claim the promise that God will forgive us our sins (He is faithful and just to do so), and also cleanse us from all unrighteousness (v.9). How is God “just” in forgiving us our sins? He is just in forgiving us because He found a “righteous basis” for forgiveness in the substitutionary work of the Christ on the cross. God doesn’t just choose to “overlook our sins;” He dealt with them through His Son at the cross (cf. 1 Pet 2:24). Furthermore, He not only forgives us but cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1:9). Note the forgiveness John speaks about here: it is parental, not judicial – judicial forgiveness means forgiveness from the penalty of sin (death); the sinner is exonerated when he believes on the Lord Jesus Christ – it is called judicial because it is granted by God as our Judge. Regarding the sins believers commit after conversion, the “price” has already been paid for those sins at the cross (judicially those sins have been dealt with) – but the sinful acts believers commit do require parental forgiveness, and that is obtained when we confess our sins. Parental forgiveness restores the believer’s joyful communion with God and other believers; sin interrupts the joy of that fellowship; thus, we need parental forgiveness throughout our Christian life. When we “confess our sins,” we must believe, on the authority of the Word of God, that He indeed forgives us… and if He forgives us, we must be willing to forgive ourselves.
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MANY BELIEVERS STRUGGLE WITH “SELF-FORGIVENESS”
Until the believer comes to that point in his Christian walk, whereby he “finally accepts” the fact that his old nature is rotten to the core (totally sinful) and cannot be reformed, and that he is really finished with living a lie (that is, living a life of trying to convince others that “he is really a good guy and has his act together”), he will continue to be highly frustrated with himself and his relationship with the Lord. Arriving at this position, however, frequently takes years of stumbling one’s way to spirituality through “rigorous self-effort” (it’s called “performance-based living”) – only to finally realize that you are really on a “dead end road” – will you experience the liberation of what it means to “live by grace!” C. S. Lewis put it this way: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” One aspect of living by grace is the “full acceptance” of your own innate sinfulness, and coming to the point where you no longer care about living a life of trying to impress others with your own spiritual phoniness and righteousness. As long as you’re into “self-protection” and “pretense,” you will continue to wallow in guilt and spiritual mediocrity.
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C. The third is to claim that “we have not committed acts of sin” (v. 10). We may admit to having a “sin nature” while still denying any personal sin and therefore any need for confession. The Greek verb translated “we have not sinned” indicates a denial in the past that continues to the present. Unlike verse 8, which speaks of the guilt of sin or a “sinful nature,” this verse is about the denial of any particular sins. To make this denial is to call God a liar, because God’s word emphasizes the penetrating nature of sin (cf. Rom 7:14-24; Jam 3:2; 1 Jn 2:2). Denying that sin is in us indicates that God’s Word is not in us. In other words, a person who denies committing sinful acts does not have the Word of God changing his or her life (cf. 1 Pet 1:23; 2:2; Rom 12:2; Col 3:16). Fellowship with God does not require sinless living (an impossibility), but it does mean that as God’s children we will bring all our sins into His presence and confess them, and forsake them – these are things that we as Christians do, because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If these things are not being done in a person’s life, then God’s Spirit is obviously not present; therefore that individual is not a Chris-tian. Christians can not live their lives completely deluded, because the work God’s Spirit in their hearts simply counters such a notion (cf. Ps 32:3-5; Ps 51:2-3, 12, 17).
John’s statements about sin were designed to make believers aware of “sin’s ever-present danger,” and to put them on guard against the inherent tendency for us to commit sin. With fatherly concern, the aged apostle addresses his readers by affectionately calling them “little children.” He wants them to be clear that what he is writing, first and foremost, is that they “not sin”… but should they sin, he wants them to know that they have an “Advocate” (emphatic!) with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (2:1). Hence, John is not saying that they should “sin as little as you can" – perfection is the goal! The Lord Jesus did this with the woman who was caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” (cf. Jn 8:11). At the same time, the Lord knows our frame – He is mindful that we are but dust, so He graciously has made provision for us in the event of failure. This is expressed in the words, “If anyone does sin” (2:1).
An “Advocate” is one who comes to the side of another person in time of need in order to help. This is exactly what the Lord Jesus does for us when we sin – He immediately comes to us in order to restore us to fellowship with Himself. It is interesting to note, the word translated “Advocate” is the same Greek word that is also used of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16 – parakletos – where it refers to a Helper for us in understanding the truth of God’s Word. Here, it describes the intercessory work of the Son. The Greek word parakletos is made up of two words – para meaning “alongside,” and kaleo meaning “to call;” hence the word means “one who is called to our side” (cf. Jn 14:16, 26, 15:26; 16:7); this could be a comforter, a consoler, or a defense attorney. As our Advocate, the Lord seeks to bring us to the place where we confess and forsake our sin. While the Holy Spirit words within us to comfort and help us, Christ pleads our cause before the Father in the courts of heaven – the two work together in perfect harmony (Rom 8:26, 27, 34). There is another “nugget of truth” in this verse, and it is this: John reminds us of the blessed truth that though sin in a believer’s life breaks fellowship with the Father, it does not break relationship — when a person is born again, he becomes a child of God; henceforth, God is his Father, and nothing can ever affect that relationship. A birth is something that cannot be undone. A son may disgrace his father, but he is still a son by the fact of birth. One final word: our Advocate is “Jesus Christ the righteous” – it is good to have a righteous Defender. When Satan brings some accusation against us in the courts of heaven (cf. Zech 3; Rev 12:10), the Lord Jesus can rightly point to His finished work on Calvary and say, “Charge that to My account.”
The Lord Jesus is not only our Advocate, He is also the “propitiation for our sins” (2:2). This means that by dying for us, He freed us from the guilt of our sins and restored us to God by providing the “needed satisfaction” and by removing every barrier to fellowship. God the Father can show mercy to us because Christ His Son has satisfied the claims of justice – His righteous wrath needed to be appeased; thus God sacrificed His Son on the cross It is not often that an advocate (or lawyer) pays for his client’s wrongs; yet that is what our Lord has done for us, and most remarkably, He paid for them by the sacrifice of His own life. John adds, Jesus is not only the satisfying sacrifice for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world (cf. 2 Cor 5:14, 15, 19; Heb 2:9). This does not mean that the whole world is saved — the work of the Lord Jesus is sufficient in value to save everyone (Rev 22:17), but it is only efficient to save those who actually put their trust in Him.
2:3-11 – The Characteristics of Fellowship. In this section, three false claims are exposed – each is introduced by the phrase “the one who says.” The New Testament speaks of “knowing God” in two senses: One who has trusted Christ as Savior knows Him relationally (cf. Jn 17:3); this person can also come to know Christ intimately (cf. Phil 3:10). Here in verse 3, the apostle John is talking about knowing the Lord intimately. We can have assurance concerning our relationship with God if our life is charac-terized by a loving desire to do His will and obey Him. John here, undoubtedly, is aiming his argument at the Gnostics who professed to have a superior knowledge of God, but who showed little interest in keeping the commandments of the Lord. John shows that words/knowledge without action is worthless.
A. The one who says “he knows Christ” but doesn’t obey Him is a liar (vv. 4-5). John does not imply that the Christian life consists in faultless obedience to the will of God, but rather than the Christian habitually desires to keep His commandments and to do those things that are pleasing in His sight. John is looking at the over-all tenor of a person’s life. If someone says he knows God and habitually lives contrary to the ways of God, then it is clear that “he doesn’t know Christ.” On the other hand, when we habitually keep His word, that is evidence that the love of God has been perfected in us – the love of God does not refer to “our love for God,” but rather to “God’s love for us.” The thought is that God’s love toward us has been brought to its goal when we keep His word; it accomplishes its aim and reaches its end in producing obedience to Him. Thus the believer begins to know by exper-ience that he or she is “in Christ” – “abiding in Him” (as the next verse states).
B. The one who says “he abides in Christ” must walk as He walked (vv. 6-8). Therefore, whoever says he “abides in Christ” should walk just as the Lord Jesus walked when He was in this world. His life is our pattern and guide. It is not a life which we can live in our own strength or energy, but is only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit – our responsibility is to turn our lives over to Him unreservedly, and allow Him to live His life in and through us (cf. Rom 6:4; Gal 2:20; 5:16; Eph 2:10). John says he is not writing a “new commandment” to them – he has no new obligations for them – but what believers have known from the very beginning – they were to “love one another” (cf. 3:11; 2 Jn 1:5; Jn 13:34). The Gnostics were always parading their teachings as being “new” – there was always the danger of drifting away from that which has been “from the beginning.” Jesus’ life was characterized by “love for others.” These Christians formerly were heathens, living in hatred and passion; now they embodied the great law of love in their lives. We know that the new command-ment is in effect because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. This new commandment of love belongs to the new age of begun by Christ.
C. The one who says “he is in the light” yet hates his brother is in darkness (vv. 9-11). In these verses we have the contrast between love that is false and that which is true. If one professes to be a Christian and yet hates those who are truly Christians, it is a sure sign that such a one is in darkness until now (2:9) – that is, this is not a case of backsliding that is in view; the man continues to be what he always was, unsaved. On the other hand, the one who characteristically loves his brother abides in the light, and will not cause his brother to stumble. By the way, a believer who “hates” has lost his spiritual perspective and sense of direction (see 2 Pet 1:9).
2:12-14 – The Stages of Growth in Fellowship. John again addresses them as “little children;” he is speaking to all who belong to the Lord – he tells them, “your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (2:12); the complete remission of our sins is a wonderful truth to know; all Christians are fully forgiven! It is for Christ’s sake that God forgives our sins. Fathers are mature believers who have known Him from the beginning… Young men are characterized by vigor and combat; this is the period of wrestling with the foe; they overcome the wicked one because they have learned the secret of victory, namely – “Not I, but Christ living in me” (cf. Gal 2:20)… Little children are the babes in the faith; they do not know very much, perhaps, but they do know the Father. John mentions the Word of God as the principle weapon for victory in overcoming the evil one (2:14), and emphasizes the importance of constantly feeding on the Word and having it ready to repel the attacks of Satan (cf. Mt 4:4, 7, 10; Eph 6:11, 17; Heb 4:12).
2:15-28 – The Biggest Dangers to Fellowship. In verses 15-17, we have a strong warning against all the attractions of this world – it is that diabolical system man has designed in his effort to make himself happy without Christ; that Satanic system that opposes the Kingdom of God on earth (cf. 4:4; 5:19; Jn 12:31; 15:18; Eph 6:11-12; Jam 4:4); it is a system that is organized on wrong principles, and characterized by base desires, false values, and egoism. Worldliness is the love for things that are “passing away” (2:8, 17), and the human heart can never find satisfaction with such things. The apostle John here plainly warns us “not to love the world or the things in the world” (2:15), for the simple reason that love for the world is not compatible with love for God. All that the world has to offer – the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – does not proceed from the Father, but finds its source in the world. The world is characterized by these three lusts, and all three are illustrated in the sin of Eve (cf. Gen 3:6), and in the three different temptations that Jesus experienced in the wilderness (cf. Lk 4:1-12). So John was making a list of the various ways believers can lured away from loving God —
- The lust of the flesh refers to such sensual pleasures or bodily appetites that proceed from within our evil nature – the “tree” was good for food. In a word, it can be described as APPETITE or PASSIONS.
- The lust of the eyes applies to such evil desires as may arise from what we see; coveteousness or materialism – the “tree” was pleasant to the eyes. In a word, it can be described as AVARICE or POSSESSIONS.
- The pride of life is an unholy ambition for self-display & self-glory; position or accomplishment – the “tree” was desired to elevate one’s self. In a word, it can be described as AMBITION or POSITION.
John highlights the “brevity of this world” by saying it is passing away (2:17). To be consumed with this life is to be unprepared for the next. What a tragedy to invest our resources in what will not last (cf. Mk 8:36). Concentrating on this world is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic – it is going down! (cf. Col 3:1-2). Wise people do not live for this world – they live for that which abides forever; doing the will of God (cf. Mt 6:33; Phil 1:21; 1 Tim 4:8; 1 Pet 1:23-25). Incidentally, this was the life verse of D. L. Moody, the great evangelist – it was inscribed on his tombstone: “He who does the will of God abides forever.”
Another hindrance to Christian fellowship is that of “wrong doctrine” (2:18). Those who are young or immature in the faith are especially susceptible to the lies of the antichrist. John’s readers had been taught that the “Antichrist” would arise prior to the coming of Christ and pretend to be Christ… so prior to his arrival “many antichrists” or false teachers appear – they offer a false Christ and a false gospel (cf. 2:22; 4:3; 2 Jn 1:7; cf. Mt 24:24; Rev 13:1-18; Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; Mt 24:15). It is interesting to note that in the day in which we live there are “many Christ-denying cults” – bearing testimony to the fact that the coming of Christ is near. When the false teachers went out from among the believers, they revealed that they did not really belong to the Christian community; hence, they left the community (2:19) – true faith always has the quality of permanence; if a man has truly been born again, he will continue on with the Lord; those who truly know the Lord endure to the end (cf. Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). It should be noted – we are not saved by enduring; we endure because we are truly saved. All genuine believers persevere to the end – that’s the result of the work of God’s Spirit in the life of the believer; He simply won’t let you rest in your sin, or turn away in full disobedience to the faith (cf. Ps 32:1-5, 8-9; Rom 8:28-30, 35-37; Eph 1:5, 11; Phil 1:6; 2:12-13). It is “this confidence” that brings a deep abiding peace to the heart of the believer – God is never going to abandon us or leave us (cf. Heb 13:5). If you are of the persuasion that it all “depends on you and your effort,” you’ve got the cart before the horse! And your focus is on your performance rather than Christ! Focus on Christ, “the author and perfecter of your faith!” (cf. Heb 12:2).
But how can a young believer “know” what is truth and what is falsehood? John writes, “You have an anointing (emphatic!) from the Holy One, and know all things” (2:20). This is the anointing of the Holy Spirit – when a person is saved, he receives the indwelling Holy Spirit, and He enables the believer to “discern” between truth and error (cf. Jn 14:16-17, 26, 15:26; 16:13). When John tells his young readers that they will “know all things,” he does not mean it in an absolute sense – stay in context – he is saying they will have the capacity to recognize what is true and what is not — how? by the indwelling Holy Spirit! not by your own human ability to rationalize through everything! if it were all left up to us and our own abilities, we would not be able to discern truth from error (Jer 17:9; Rom 7:11; Eph 4:22). Thus the youngest simplest believer has the capacity of discernment in divine things that an unsaved philosopher does not have. Spiritual wisdom is like a foreign language to someone who is not a believer – it simply doesn’t make sense to him – it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to understand! (cf. 1 Cor 2:14).
John here is not writing to them because they are ignorant of the truth – he is simply confirming them in the truth they already knew, and reminding them that “no lie is of the truth” (2:21). The principle “lie” of the Gnostics was the denial that Jesus is the Christ (God incarnate); this is the great lie of the cults today. Believers genuinely “know this,” not because they’re so smart, but because the indwelling Holy Spirit has revealed this to them – that’s the Spirit’s function in our lives. John simply reminds his readers that “he is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (2:22). Those who fail to acknowledge the “deity of Jesus Christ,” does not have the Father – one cannot have the Father without having the Son (cf. 2:23; Jn 5:18; 10:30; 17:21). The safeguard for young believers is to reflect upon the truth of what they have known from the very beginning (2:24); God’s Spirit will once again confirm that truth in their heart and mind. Our greatest safety is in staying close to the word of God; therein will the Spirit confirm the truth to your spirit – you don’t need an “outside source” to do this work (1 Jn 2:27). It is important for the believer to be in the Word daily, so that he can continue to experience the ministry of the Spirit to his own heart and mind – believers can’t expect to have an assuring confidence in Christ when they neglect the “source of that confidence” (God’s Word) – if you are a genuine believer, the Holy Spirit won’t let you “rest” in a wayward position; He will drive you to your knees until you return to Him –He does that through difficult circumstances and through a disquieted, discontented spirit (cf. Ps 32:3-5, 8-9). Every believer knows “where to go” when every-thing goes south in his life – back to God! How do he know this? By the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit! The “foundation stone” has been laid in our lives… when we begin to stray from that God’s Spirit brings us back to square one, and we get back on the right track (via confession).
Struggling with “assurance”? Assurance is a “faith” issue – “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Faith is “believing what God has said” (His Word); therefore by definition, no faith – no assurance… without believing what God has said, no assurance. What is the source of faith? What does Scripture say? “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God” (cf. Rom 10:17); therefore, faith is a by-product of God’s Word (truth) and the ministry of the God’s Spirit in a person’s life (cf. Acts 16:14). Remember, “the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God” (Eph 6:17), and “he Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12) – God’s Word is not some sterile, intelligible, stagnant reality; it is a living and active reality – the essence of God’s Spirit in action! The written word is only a sterile, stagnant reality in the minds of unbelievers; because their minds are devoid of the Spirit of God; as such, God’s word is mere gibberish, foolishness (cf. 1 Cor 1:18; 2:14; 2 Cor 4:3-4; 2 Th 2:11). Where the Spirit is there is “life!” (cf. Jn 3:6; 6:63; Rom 8:2, 6; 8:16; 2 Cor 3:6; Phil 2:16) – no Spirit, no faith? no life!
When we abide in the Christian doctrine, we give proof of the reality of our faith… and the pro-mise of that faith is eternal life (2:25). When we accept Christ, we receive His own life – i.e., eternal life (cf. Jn 3:16; Rom 8:10; Gal 2:20; Col 1:27) – and this life, the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:2), enables us to test all new and questionable doctrines; thus we have no need for anyone to teach this to us (2:27); that is the function of the Spirit. This does not mean that John was advocating a mystical anti-intellectualism that circumvents Christian teachers; on the contrary, the Lord has given to His church pastors and teachers “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (cf. Rom 4:11-12; 1 Cor 12:28); what he is saying here is that the Christian does not have to rely upon the teaching of human wisdom or man-centered philosophy (that which is outside of Scripture – like the Gnostics) as to the truth of God’s Word (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:9; Col 2:8). The Gnostics professed to have “additional truth,” but John is saying here that there is no need for additional truth. Christians rely on the teaching of God’s Word by Spirit-gifted human teachers and the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:14). With the indwelling presence of God’s Spirit in our hearts, and God’s Word in our hands, we have all we need for discerning the truth. John goes on to reestablish the point that every believer “abides in Christ” – “lives in Christ;” that is the reality (cf. 2:27; Rom 6:4, 11; Gal 2:20).
John has been urging his readers to let what they have heard from the beginning abide in them (2:24-27). Now he advises them to “abide in Christ Himself” (2:28). Though every believer “abides in Christ” positionally, they do not all “live out that position” and thus mature into the likeness of Christ. The apostle here is exhorting his readers to “walk intimately with Christ” – abide in His presence! Jesus taught the wonderful truth of what it means “to abide” – He said: “I am the vine, you are the branches… the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine… therefore abide in Me, and let My words abide in you… [in doing so] you will bear much fruit and glorify My Father [who is in heaven]… and your joy will be made full” (cf. Jn 15:1-11). The branch that bears much fruit is the Christian who is maturing in his faith and “growing more like the Lord Jesus.” To abide means to “stay where you are” – the Christian has been placed in Christ; that is his position – he has new life in Christ. In his daily walk, he is to “stay in intimate fellowship with the Lord.” A branch abides in a vine by drawing all its life and nourishment from the vine – so we abide in Christ by spending time in prayer… reading, studying and obeying His Word… fellowshipping with His people… and being continually conscious of our union with Him. The only way believers can bear the fruit of a Christ-like character is by walking intimately with Christ moment by moment – the essence of “walking by the Spirit” (cf. Gal 5:16ff). When we choose in the moment “not to abide or walk with Him,” we will not bear fruit – Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (cf. Jn 15:5). A branch has one great purpose, and that is to bear fruit; and it only does that when it abides in the vine. The closer we get to Christ, the more we learn to think His thoughts after Him… the more we get to know Him through His Word, the more we understand His will… the more our will agrees with His will, the more we can be sure of having our prayers answered and experience His joy. Jesus taught that real joy only comes by intimately walking with Him.
John presents a “profound negative” to those who fail to walk closely with Christ in this life — it is this: Should we decide to live this life in stubborn rebellion against God – doing our own thing – we will “shrink back from Him at His coming” (2:28). The key to grasping the significance of this concept lies in the words “we may have confidence” – literally, the Greek word “having confidence” means “being able to speak” – imagine, if you will, being so ashamed when Jesus returns that you are unable to speak or look into His face, because you are “so ashamed at the way in which you lived your life.” That is a very sobering thought – can you even imagine such humiliation? When others are in a state of absolute exhilaration, you are speechless and ashamed? Beloved, if that describes you, stop what you’re doing and reach out to the One who gave His life for you (Jam 4:8; Lk 15:11-24); it is never too late to turn back! Scripture is very clear on the subject of there being “no glorification without humiliation” – either you humble yourself now in obedience, or He will humble you when He returns. That’s a promise. Furthermore, if you are walking in rebellion, you will never be “sure” if you indeed are saved – perhaps you are not. Remember, genuine believers persevere to the end – though every believer doesn’t persevere with the same degree of effort, as evidenced by the fact that there will be varying degrees of “rewards” given out. If you are a believer, you will inherit eternal life (that’s a given), but if you are walking in rebellion, you will suffer an indescribable humiliation at Christ’s coming and the loss of rewards (cf. 1 Cor 3:12-15). If there are any words you should want to hear from Christ when He returns it should be these: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt 25: 21, 23, 29). Can you even imagine not hearing those words? When we humble ourselves in this life, God pours out grace in full measure (Jam 4:6); the reality is, when we don’t humble ourselves now, He will humble us later. Scripture also tells us that if we show mercy in this life, God will be merciful in judgment; when we don’t show mercy in this life, He will be merciless when judging (cf. Jam 2:13). Conversely, when we recite the Lord’s prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” (cf. Mt 6:12; also vv. 14-15); judicial forgiveness is unconditional (all our sins were dealt with at the cross); but parental forgiveness is conditional – without being will-ing to forgive others, the believer will not enjoy his fellowship with God, who paid the price for all his sins on the cross (Cf. Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness – Mt 18:23-35).
2:29-3:24 – Children of God Practice Righteousness. Just as in the physical realm “like begets like,” so it is in the spiritual realm. Therefore “everyone who practices righteousness is born of God” (2:29). Because God is righteous, it follows that everyone who is born of Him is also righteous. This is John’s logic. With that said, John then asks his readers to take a look at the wonderful love that brought us into the family of God and made us His children (3:1). The reason that the world does not recognize as such, is because the world does not know God; the world did not understand the Lord Jesus when He was here on earth. John writes, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and they did not receive Him” (cf. Jn 1:10-11). Since we have the same characteristics as the Lord Jesus, we cannot expect the world to understand us either; nevertheless we are “children of God,” and this is the guarantee of our future glory (3:2) – one day we shall be like Christ in all His holiness, and free from the possibility of defilement, sin, sickness, sorrow, death. Here in this life, the process of becoming like Christ is going on as we behold Him by faith in His Word; but one day the process will be completed when we “see Him as He is” – “to see Him is to be like Him.” Everyone who hopes to one day be like Christ, “purifies himself, just as He is pure” (3:3) – the hope of Christ’s return has a sanctifying influence in the life of the believer – “purifying oneself” is a process for the believer, as the present tense of the Greek verb indicates, not something that happens instantaneously. Our goal should be to gradually become more like Christ every day. The apostle Peter puts it this way: “fix your hope completely (emphatic!) on the grace to brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ… and be holy in all your behavior” (cf. 1 Pet 1:13-16; Col 3:1-10) – here the assurance of Christ’s return is held out as a compelling motive to be holy like God is holy. The believer is born again to a “living hope” (1 Pet 1:3); as sinners we had no hope beyond the grave… there was nothing ahead for us but judgment and God’s wrath… but through the redemptive work of Christ on the cross we have been set free from the penalty of sin and death, and reconciled to God in such a way that we will forever live with Him in heaven – this “hope” that is ours is a “certain hope” that we will one day be fully transformed into the image of Christ (cf. Rom 8:29; Col 1:27) – it is not a “wishful hope;” therefore with perseverance we eagerly wait for it (Rom 8:24-25). When you “know” something is going to happen, you eagerly wait for it, and you “fix your hope on it” (1 Jn 3:3).
The opposite of practicing righteousness is “practicing sin and lawlessness” (3:4); it is a matter of continual, habitual behavior (as the present tense suggests). Sin is lawlessness in the sense that it is insubordination to God… active rebellion against God… wanting one’s own way… and refusing to acknowledge the Lord as rightful Sovereign. Essentially, it is placing one’s own will above the will of God, and opposing Him alone who has a right to be obeyed. A Christian cannot go on practicing sin, because that would be completely contrary to the purpose for which the Lord Jesus came into this world – Christ appeared to take away sin (3:5). There is “no sin” in Him – this is one of four passages in the NT that deals with the sinless humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 3:5; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22).
No believer “practices sin” (3:6-12) – John here is not speaking about “isolated acts of sin,” but of continued, habitual, characteristic behavior. The present tense verb once again is the key to understanding the difference between committing isolated acts of sin and living a life of habitual sin. In order to better grasp the essence of this concept, it might be helpful to “define sin” – sin is not just confined to those “overt evils” that all people identify as wrong (murder, stealing, lying, adultery); the essence of sin is “being the god of your own life,” doing your thing on your own terms, living life without submitting your will to the will of God. Paul writes, “that which is not of faith (being obedient to God) is sin” (cf. Rom 14:23). So when we live our lives outside of the lordship of Christ, we are living in sin. Common sense then concludes that the person who lives his life with complete disregard for God, does not know Christ or abide in Christ (3:6).
John further cautioned his readers that they should “make sure no one deceive them” concerning a correct understanding of sanctification (3:7). The Gnostics made great pretensions as to their knowledge, but were very careless about their personal lives; therefore John says that only those who “practices righteousness” can have any assurance that they are righteous — there should be no con-fusion on this point: a man cannot have spiritual life and go on living in sin. And a man can only practice righteousness by having the “nature” of Him who is righteous (Jesus Christ). Those who “practice sin” (live without consideration for God) are of the devil, who has sinned from the begin-ning – Satan is the prototypical rebel, the leading antagonist against God, and the ruler of this sinful world system; all unsaved sinners are in a sense the devil’s children (cf. Jn 8:44; 2 Cor 4:3-34; Eph 2:1-3). John makes the obvious conclusion that Christ appeared to destroy the works of the devil (cf. 3:8; Gen 3:15; Jn 12:31; Heb 2:14) — all God’s children have been “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the Kingdom of His beloved Son” (cf. Col 1:13).
The believer does not practice sin because “God’s divine life” has been implanted in him – John pictures the divine life as a “seed” (3:9). Just as a human birth results from an implanted seed, so also spiritual life begins when the “divine seed” is implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. The instrument by which the Spirit gives new birth to sinners is the Word of God – writes Peter: “You have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living abiding word of God” (cf. 1 Pet 1:23). Since we have been “born of God,” we are now “new creatures in Christ,” and as such we no longer “habitually practice sin” (cf. 1 Jn 3:9; 2 Cor 5:17). The divine life within precludes the possibility of continuance in sin as a lifestyle. John emphatically reiterates again – the children of the devil “do not practice righteousness or love their brothers” (3:10); as such, their lives run com-pletely contrary to the message we’ve had from the beginning: “we are to love one another” (3:11); our divine obligation is to genuinely seek the other’s highest good (Lk 22:27, 29, 36-37; 1 Jn 3:18; 4:7-8). Cain showed that he was of the evil one by murdering his brother – because Abel’s deeds were righteous (3:12).
It is a basic principle in human life that “wickedness hates righteousness” (3:13-24). Jesus said, “Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil” (cf. Jn 3:19) – those who love sin hate the light because the light exposes their sinfulness ugly, unacceptable and debased (cf. Jn 3:20); if they didn’t “love their sin” they wouldn’t “hate righteousness” – the two are antithetical; if you love heat, you hate cold; if you love big, you have small; if you love the political left, you hate the political right; if you’re really passionate about some value you hold dearly, and someone tells you that they passionately despise that value, it will make you angry with them. The principle is this – when you are “fully given to an ideal” (i.e., you really love it!), you will despise that which is anti-thetical or opposed to that ideal. Such is the case with “spiritual things” – either you are passionately in love with them or you passionately hate them. When Jesus was here in the world, passionately sinful men were made very uncomfortable by His presence because He revealed their awful condition (that they loved!) by His own purity and holiness. When the light (Holy Spirit) exposes our sinfulness, and our hearts are in agreement with that revelation, we then embrace Christ as our Savior… when our hearts are not in agreement with that revelation, we not only hate the message, we hate the messenger.
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because “we love the brethren” (3:14). It is a remarkable fact that when a person is saved, he has an entirely different attitude toward fellow Christians. This is one of the ways he receives assurance of salvation. A person who does not “love” the family of God is not a Christian – spiritually, he is dead (cf. Eph 2:1, 5; Rom 8:6-8). In the eyes of the world, hatred is not a very wicked thing, but God calls it murder – a moment’s reflection will show that it is murder in embryo; the motive is there in seed form, although the act might not be committed. Thus, whoever hates (present tense) his brother is a murderer; and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him – a man who characteristically hates is not saved.
The Lord Jesus gave us the ultimate example of “love” when He laid down His life for us (3:16). Christ here is contrasted with Cain – Christ “loves” and Cain “hates.” Because we are children of God we should also “lay down our lives” for the brethren – our lives should be a continual giving-out, and a continual sacrifice of service & worship (cf. 3:18; Mt 10:42; 25:45-46; Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 6:20; Eph 4:1; Heb 6:10). Notice, service is a “sacrifice” – if it costs you nothing, it is worth nothing. Think about that in terms of the cross. I find the parallel amazing – Jesus went to the cross, and we can’t give a few dollars! Note: the money that we give isn’t even ours! It’s God’s! We are simply stewards of His money! And yet we treat it like it is our own! (cf. Mt 19:23; Lk 16:13; 1 Cor 4:2). This verse does raise very disturbing questions concerning the accumulation of wealth by Christians. For arguments sake, admittedly, the most we can do for someone is lay down our life for someone; but the least we can do help meet a brother’s needs (3:17). And that means not just loving in word or tongue, but in deed and truth (3:18). When our love is manifested in actual deeds of kindness (time and resources), then it is markedly sacrificial and helpful – words alone (with the exception of good godly counsel) seldom meet the real needs of people’s lives. The reason we hesitate to “get involved” at the deepest level in people’s lives, is that it costs us time and resources – it is sacrificial, just like the cross was sacrificial. Jesus didn’t just come down to earth and “exhort us in a sermon” – He saw our need, and did what He had to do to meet our need. Paul addresses this in Philippians two: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests (emphatic!), but look out for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (cf. Phil 2:4-5). The verb “look out” is the key word – it is built on the Greek word episkopos; a compound word made up of the word epi meaning “upon,” and the word skopos (from which we get our words microscope and telescope) meaning “to look at;” hence, believers are to “scope out” and “carefully look at” the needs of others – not just casually glance at them. The facts are these: We don’t carefully scrutinize the needs of others, because it costs us too much to help someone in need. The root problem is “we’re selfish,” so more often than not we’re like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan – “we just pass by on the other side” and pretend we didn’t notice (cf. Lk 10:30-37; Jam 1:27).
By the exercise of real and active love to our brethren, we know that we are of the truth, and this assures our hearts before Him (cf. 3:19; Heb 11:1; Jam 2:20). If our heart condemns us, we know that God is greater than our heart in the matter of judgment – whereas we only know our sins in a very limited way, God knows them fully and absolutely (3:20). If our heart does not condemn us, that is, if we have a clear conscience before God, it is not that we have been living sinlessly, it is that we have been quick to confess and forsake our sins – we have kept short accounts with God. In so doing, we have confidence before God and boldness in prayer (3:21), and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight (cf. 3:22; Heb 11:6). To keep His commandments is to live in close, vital intimacy with Christ. When we are in such fellowship with Him, we make His will our own will (cf. Mt 6:10; Lk 22:42; Jn 7:17; Ps 37:4). By the Holy Spirit, He fills us with the knowledge of His will – in such a condition, we would not ask for anything outside the will of God. Therefore we receive from Him the things we ask for (3:22). God’s commandment is that we in the name of His Son and love one another (3:23); this summarizes our duties to God and to our fellow Christians. Our first duty is to trust Christ; because true faith is expressed in right conduct, we should love one another. This is the evidence of saving faith. The one of keeps His commandments abides in Him, and Christ in him. And we know Christ abides in us by the Holy Spirit – all believers have the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 8:9), but only those who walk in faithful obedience experience a deep abiding assurance of His presence (cf. 3:24; Heb 11:1).
4:1-6 – The Need to Discern between Truth and Error. John reminds his readers that there are “other spirits” in the world that are not from God; we are to “test the spirits” to see if they are of God, because many “false prophets” have gone out into the world (4:1). The great test of a teacher is, “What do you think of Christ?” It is the acknowledgement that Jesus Christ is God incarnate (4:2). Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus is the Christ is not from God – this is the spirit of antichrist (4:3); these people teach another gospel altogether. Believers are able to overcome these false teachers because they have the Holy Spirit within them, and this enables them to detect error – writes John: “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (4:4). Since the false teachers are “of this world,” the source of all they speak is “from the world;” as such, the world listens to them (4:5). We all listen to that realm to which we belong, because therein lie our affections; those who speak the language of our souls get our attention; we listen to those who know us. John then goes on to say that he and the other apostles are “from God,” and those who are born of God listen to them; those who are not born of God do not listen to them. So all who are truly born of God will “accept the teaching of the apostles as presented in the NT;” those who are not born of God will “refuse the testimony of the NT” as it is presented (4:6). Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice and follow Me; but they will not follow a stranger” (cf. Jn 10:4-5); the Holy Spirit gives us ears to hear His voice; unbelievers don’t have the Spirit within them confirming His Word to their hearts (cf. Lk 24:45; Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13; Acts 16:14; 1 Cor 2:14) – thus believers are able to discern truth from error (4:6).
4:7-21 – Genuine Believers Love One Another. John emphasizes that “love is a duty,” consistent with the character of God. As to its origin, love is of God, and everyone who loves is “born of God and knows God – he who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:7-8). There is no such thing as true agape love outside of God – He is the source of all such love. As believers we are able to love in this manner, “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (cf. Rom 5:5); agape love is not human in its origin. In the verses that follow, we have a description of the manifestation of God’s love in all three tenses – past, present, and future:
- Past tense (4:9-11) – In the past, God’s love was manifested to us as sinners when God sent His only begotten Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins, that we might live through Him. We were spiritually dead and needed life (cf. Eph 2:1-5)… we were guilty and needed propitiation (cf. 1 Jn 2:2)… we were enemies of God and needed reconciliation (cf. Rom 5:10). God’s love was not shown to us because we first loved Him; on the contrary, we didn’t love God, He was our enemy, we hated Him (cf. Lk 16:13; Jn 15:24-25; Rom 5:8; 8:7; Jam 4:4); yet He loved us in spite of our bitter antagonism. “How great is the love that the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God!” (cf. 1 Jn 3:1). I am reminded again of the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?” John now enforces the lesson of such love: “If God loved us this much, then we can certainly love everyone else in His family” (cf. 4:11; Jn 13:34).
- Present tense (4:12-16) – In the present, God’s love is manifested to us as His children by dwelling within us. “No one has seen God at any time” (cf. 4:12; Jn 1:18) – the invisible God was made known to the world, however, through the Lord Jesus Christ… and is now manifested to the world through God’s children (because His Spirit indwells them). How incredible that now WE must be God’s answer to man’s need to see Him! And when “we love one another” we convey God’s love to the world (cf. Jn 13:35; 2 Cor 3:2-3; 4:4)… and when we love one another “His love is perfected in us;” i.e., God’s love to us has achieved its goal. God never intended us to strictly be “vessels” of God’s love; from the very beginning it was always God’s desire that we be “channels” of His love. God did not give His love to us that we might hoard it for ourselves — but that it might be poured out through us upon others! It is even such with the eternal love the Father has for His Son — that He might give His life for us! The love of God underlies all that He has done and is doing in the world; even if we can’t fully reconcile it with our limited understanding. Love is the highest motive or ground of all moral actions; all virtue springs out of love; and all love in the family of God springs forth from the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5; Gal 5:22). When we selflessly love one another, that is proof that we are in Christ, He is in us, and we are partakers of His Spirit (cf. 4:13; Eph 4:24; Heb 12:10; 2 Pet 1:4; 1 Jn 3:2). John adds the testimony of apostles at this point: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (4:14) – this is a grand statement of divine love in action. Those who embrace Christ as Savior have come to know and believe that God really loves them, and that they now abide in Him, and He abides them (4:15-16).
- Future tense (4:17-18) – In the future, God’s love will be manifested to us in giving us confidence in the day of judgment. God’s love is perfected in us – accomplishes it’s goal in us – because the “sin” question has been settled once and for all. The reason for our confidence in that coming day is given in the words “because as He is so are we in this world” — the Lord Jesus is now in heaven, with judgment completely behind Him. He came into the world once and suffered the punishment which our sins deserved; but He has finished the work of redemption and now will never have to take up the sin question again. “As He is, so are we in this world” — our sins were judged at the cross, and we can now confidently sing: “Death and judgment are behind me, grace and glory lie before.” A mature understanding of God’s love removes any fear of God’s judgment. Just as judgment is passed for Jesus, so we are beyond the reach of condemnation. Because we have come to know God’s love, we have “no fear of being punished” — there is “no fear in agape love, because God’s perfect love casts out fear” (4:18); remember, it is “His love for us” that casts out fear, not our performance. That’s the essence of grace! “Oh how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God” (cf. 1 Jn 3:1). Amazing love? It is absolutely mind-boggling.
The only reason we love God is because He first loved us (4:19), and poured out His love into our hearts in the person of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5); without which we would not and could not love God or anyone else. As you’ll recall, we were commanded in the Old Testament to “love God and love our neighbor,” but we didn’t have the capacity within us to do so – therefore God sent His Son into the world to solve the problem. And it was His love that drew out our hearts to Him in return. John shows the futility of professing to love God while at the same time hating one’s brother (4:20). He then goes on to argue the impossibility of loving God whom we have not seen, and not loving a brother whom we have seen. John closes this section by repeating the correlation of love for God and love for others – “the one who loves God should love his brother also” (4:21).
5:1-12 – The Results of Genuine Faith:
A. Love and Obedience (5:1-3) – John begins by looking at four results of faith in these three verses: 1) the divine birth, 2) love for God, 3) love for one’s fellow believers, and 4) obedience to God’s commandments. “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (5:1) – belief in relation to salvation in Scripture is not merely “agreeing with a set of facts intellectually;” it is a committal to the reality of those facts – a committal of one’s life to Jesus as the Christ; it is trusting in the work and person and teachings of Christ – thus, one becomes a “follower of Christ;” that is, a Christian. If we are truly born of God we will “love Him” – He will be the “number one player in our lives;” we will think about Him often, every day, because His Spirit will continually be prompting us at every turn. No believer goes days and weeks without “God thoughts” – that would be akin to the alcoholic never thinking about alcohol! (sorry about the antithetical manner of illustrating this!). We think as we are – that is, our thoughts reflect our essence. Further, those who are born of God “love all believers” – we are all one family, one in essence, the body of Christ. Finally, because we love God, we obey Him (present tense) – those who are truly saved will be characterized by a desire to do the will of God. Our love for God is expressed in willing, obedience to His commands. The Lord Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (cf. Jn 14:15). We act out who we are – we reflect our essence. Remember, God’s Spirit is at work in us – He has written God’s law on our hearts (cf. Jer 31:33; Heb 10:16-17), and is ever causing us to continually seek His face and walk in His ways (cf. Ezek 36:27; Phil 2:13). Who do you think “the prime mover is” in your life, that is urging you to become like Christ? You? Not a chance! It is God who is at work in you! (cf. Rom 12:3; 1 Cor 15:10; Heb 13:20-21). Stop getting the cart before the horse! (again, sorry for using such an ungodly metaphor). One further note: John says that “God’s commandments are not burdensome” (emphatic!), because they are the very things God’s children love to do. When you tell a mother to take good care of her baby, you are only telling her to do that which she loves to do! Our new nature delights in the ways of God! If God’s ways are burdensome to you, you’ve got the cart before the horse! Being a Christian isn’t a heavy burden that we have to lug around all day long, saying – “Oh, God! Why do I have to hang around with You all day long?” – No! That’s not the heart of the believer! If that happens to express how you feel… you’re not a believer! You’re a “legalist” like the Pharisees were (cf. Mt 11:28-30; 23:1-4; Acts 15:10; Gal 5:1). As Christians, we’re not hanging out with someone we really don’t like! We’re hanging out with the “lover of our soul!” Our best friend! Christ isn’t the problem in the Christian life – we are the problem! that is, the old self! our flesh! our ‘ole sinful disposition! That’s the enemy of our soul! Therein is the battle! Do I hear someone out there saying, “Amen!”?
B. Overcoming the World (5:4-5) – Next we learn the secret of victory over the world. The world system is a monstrous scheme of temptation, that is always trying to drag us away from God and from what is eternal, and seeking to occupy us with what is temporary and sensual. The people of this world are completely occupied with the things of time and sense; they have become the victims of those things which are going to fade away (cf. Mt 6:19-21; Lk 12:16-21; Jam 1:11; 1 Pet 1:4). Only the man who is born of God really overcomes the world, because by faith he is able to rise above the perishing things of this world, and see things as they really are, in their true, eternal perspective. The things of this world are temporary and passing away; therefore we should set our minds on things above, not on the things here below (cf. Col 3:2). When you find yourself drifting spiritually and preoccupied with the things of this world, do as the old chorus says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” When we focus on this world, we wander spiritually and drift from God, and the outcome is a destitute soul, loneliness and discouragement. After feeding our souls on the things of this world, and reaping what we have sown, we ultimately do come to our senses (because of the chastening hand of the Lord) and return to the lover of our souls (cf. 2 Sam 11-12; Ps 32; 51; Lk 15:11-24; Heb 12:5-11). The venerable commentator Matthew Henry, when reflecting upon the moral lapse of David (cf. 2 Sam 11), says it was occasioned by three things –– 1) Neglect of responsibility; 2) Love of ease; and 3) A wandering eye. Times of idleness most often are times of greatest temptation. Obviously the world has its attractions… if we entertain them long enough, they will ignite our fleshly passions and carry us away, thus loosening us from our spiritual moorings (cf. Gen 3:6; Jam 1:14-15). None of us can withstand the full onslaught of temptation; especially when it is actually invited. John closes this section by reminding us that the one who does overcome, is the one who genuinely believes that “Jesus is the Son of God” – a theological position that was completely contrary to what the Gnostics were teaching.
C. Sound Doctrine (5:6-12) – John now goes on to expound the truth concerning the work of the Lord Jesus Christ: “This is the one who came by water and blood” – most scholars relate these words to combat the Gnostic heresy that John was addressing. As mentioned early, the Gnostics believed that Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him before His death on the cross. In other words, they would say, “The Christ did not die on the cross, but Jesus the man did.” This, of course, robs His work of any atoning value for the sins of others. Therefore, it most likely that John is using “water” as an emblem of Jesus’ baptism, and “blood” as a symbol of His atoning death. John is saying that Jesus was just as much the Christ when He died on the cross as when He was baptized in the Jordan. “This is the one who came by water and blood” – not only by water (which the Gnostics would con-cede), but by water and by blood. Satan work, ultimately, is to destroy the doctrine of the atonement. Men like to believe that Jesus was a perfect man, the ideal Example, who has given us a marvelous code of morals. But John here insists that the Lord Jesus is not only Perfect Man, but Perfect God as well – and as such He was baptized in the Jordan and gave His life as a sacrifice for sinners at Calvary. Men say to Christ, “Come down from the cross and we will believe on You.” If they can just eliminate the cross from their thinking, they and Satan will be happy. But John was saying – “No, you cannot have the Lord Jesus Christ apart from His perfect redemptive work at Calvary!” The Holy Spirit bears witness to this truth (cf. 5:7; Jn 15:26; 16:13). The Holy Spirit, the baptism of Christ, and the cross of Calvary are all in agreement, and bear witness to the perfection of the Person and work of Christ (5:8). John then says, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater – and God Himself has borne witness concerning His Son” (5:9). We receive the witness of men in everyday life – if we didn’t, business would come to a standstill and social life would be impossible. If we can trust the witness of men (fallible as they frequently are), how much more should we be able to trust the Word of God, who cannot fail and cannot lie – to not believe God is the most unreasonable position of all.
Next, John contrasts those who “accept” and those who “reject” what God says (5:10); those who accept “God’s testimony” concerning His Son, God seals the truth in them by giving them the witness of the Spirit; on the other hand, those who do not believe God, actually is claiming that He is a liar. John then goes on to summarize the Christian message: “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (cf. 5:11; Jn 1:4; 11:25). From this the conclusion is inevitable: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life” (cf. 5:12; Jn 3:16). Eternal life is not found in education or philosophy or science or good works or religion – it is found in Jesus Christ.
John states the “purpose” of his letter in 5:13 – “These things I have written to you who believe in the Son of God, that you may ‘know’ that you have eternal life” (emphatic!). If you have the marks of those who are children of God, then you can know that you have been born into the family of God. This letter was written to “erase all doubt” concerning one’s salvation. Conversely, when we know that we have eternal life, we can go before the Lord with confidence in prayer – knowing that if we ask anything according to God’s will, He hears us and will answer us (cf. 5:14; Jn 14:13; 1 Jn 3:22; Ps 37:4). The key to knowing that God hears our prayers is to pray “according to God’s will.”
The intercessory prayers of believers (5:16-17) – A believer should intercede for a sinning fellow Christian provided that he sees the brother sinning, and that the sin is not one that “leads to death” (5:16). The believer can pray with confidence knowing that it is the will of God that sinning believers should stop sinning. It is difficult to know with certainty exactly what John means by “a sing leading to death,” but the best scholars believe it refers to one of the following – blaspheming the Holy Spirit, rejecting Christ as Savior, rejecting the humanity or deity of Jesus, a specific sin such as murder (cf. 1 Jn 3:12, 15), or a life of habitual sin. Whatever it is, the sin seems to be a flagrant violation of the sanctity of the Christian community (cf. Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5:5; 11:30). The context of John’s letter seems to best support the position that the “sin of apostasy” is in view. An apostate is one who has heard the great truths of the Christian faith, has become intellectually convinced that Jesus is the Christ, has even made a profession of Christ-ianity, although he has never been truly saved. After having tasted the good things of Christianity, he completely renounces them and repudiates the Lord Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 6, we learn that this is a “sin leading to death.” Those committing this sin have no way of escape, since “they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame” (cf. Heb 6:6). Throughout his entire letter, John has been speaking with the Gnostics in view. These false teachers had once been in the Christian fellowship; they had known the facts of the faith; but then they turned their backs on the Lord Jesus and accepted a teaching which completely denied His deity and the sufficiency of His atoning work. Christ- ians do have the liberty to pray for the restoration of such individuals because God has already indicated in His word that they have sinned unto death. Other than those who have committed such a sin, John is encouraging believers to help fellow believers who are straying – incredible as it may seem, you and I can be the agents God uses to restore erring brothers and sisters to true fellowship.
John brings his letter to a “majestic close” by reiterating the great certainties of the Christian faith. John mentions three certainties, and each one is introduced by the phrase “we know” – what are they?
1. We know that “no one who is born of God practices sin” (5:18) – of this we can be sure, the one who has God’s divine nature within him does not go on practicing sin (note the present tense again – cf. 3:9). Though we may fall into sin, we cannot continue in it indefinitely; the new birth precludes that. The believer rests upon the fact that “Jesus keeps him and the evil one does not touch him.” The evil one would love to harm us and destroy us, but he is unable to do so because God faithfully defends His people. The story of Job is an illustration of this point: Satan wished to destroy Job but was unable to do so due to the fact that God has placed a hedge around Job and all he had (cf. Job 1:9-11); the point is that God had been keeping Job from Satan’s clutches… though later He would allow Satan to attack His servant to a limited degree and for a limited time. So it is with us – God keeps us from the one who would do us injury (cf. Jn 10:28; 17:11, 15; Phil 1:6; 1 Th 5:23-24; 2 Tim 1:12; 4:18; Jude 1:24-25).
2. We know that “we are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19) – This is the Christian answer to those who profess to have superior knowledge (the Gnostics). With John there is no mincing of words – He sees only two spheres: those who are “in Christ,” and those who are under the sway of the “evil one.” All people are either saved or lost, and their position depends on their relationship to Jesus Christ. Hear this, you Gnostics!
3. We know that “the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ” (5:20). This is the theme with which John opened his letter – “we know that the Son of God has come!” and He has revealed to us Him who is true; that is, the true God. God the Father can only be known through the Lord Jesus Christ – “He has declared Him” (cf. Jn 17:6, 26). Then John adds: “And we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ” – again the emphasis is that it is only as we are in Jesus Christ that we can be in God. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (cf. Jn 14:6). This is the true God and eternal life” – in other words, John is teaching what the Gnostics denied, namely, that Jesus Christ is God, and that eternal life is found only in Him.
Closing appeal: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (5:21). In effect, John is saying, “Beware of any teachings which are opposed to these realities – be on guard against them!” Jesus Christ is God! Any other thought is false! In short, it is idolatry!