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In his gospel, John told his readers about “the Word,” Jesus Christ, who had been with God in the beginning and who was made flesh and lived among us (John 1:1, 14). Now, in his first letter, the apostle can barely contain his excitement as he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 John 1:1, 3). As the one closest to Jesus during His earthly ministry (see John 13:23), John, the son of Zebedee, bears first-hand witness to Jesus.
Yet while he penned the gospel as a presentation of Jesus “the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31), to a general audience, John writes his first epistle because, after the publication of the gospel, some had apparently twisted the meaning of his words and unsettled the members of John’s congregations. Just prior to the writing of John’s first epistle, these false teachers had apparently made their exit from the church (1 John 2:19), leaving behind believers who remained in need of apostolic instruction and reassurance. As we read John’s first letter in this light, we can reasonably infer some of the false teachings from the apostle’s positive emphases.
First, the false teachers seem to have claimed that it was possible to live the Christian life in moral “freedom”—immorality—and that such a “free” lifestyle did not detract from their spirituality. John counters this assertion by making clear that God is light (1:5), so that anyone who claims to have fellowship with God must live in the light (that is, cultivate holiness and purity) as well (vv. 6–7). It is a sheer impossibility for anyone to profess faith in God and yet live an immoral life.
Second, the false teachers also seem to have denied their sinfulness. Similarly, sometimes today Christians apparently believe or act as if, now that they have entered into a personal relationship with God in Christ, they no longer need to confess their sins. However, this notion is entirely unbiblical, because John plainly states, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v. 8). Instead, we must confess our sins in order to receive cleansing and forgiveness from God (v. 9).
Third, the false teachers seem to have denied their need for Christ’s atonement for sin. This follows from their misconstrual of grace as a license for immorality and from their denial of human sinfulness. Before people can sense a need for the Savior, they must first be convinced of their sinfulness and need for forgiveness. For such persons, there is good news, for, as John writes, “Jesus Christ the righteous … is the propitiation [atoning sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath] for our sins” (2:1–2).
What is more, those who have truly understood their own sinfulness and need for a Savior do not cheapen God’s grace by living an immoral life. Such persons are deeply grateful for what God has done for them in Christ Jesus and live their lives in humble dependence on Christ and in faithful service of others.
In the end, therefore, John states emphatically that a person’s Christianity is not a matter of mere confession but is demonstrated in what that person actually does: Do you live a sinful, immoral life? Or do you obey God’s Word (2:5) and love your brother (your fellow believer, v. 10)? In short, “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (v. 6, NIV). This test is both ruthlessly realistic and intensely practical. It unmasks intellectual assent to Christianity apart from faithful Christian obedience as a hollow charade, and it challenges us to rise beyond mere church attendance and Bible study to active involvement in the cause of Christ in our world.
One of the most powerful contributions made by John in all his writings, including his first letter, is his emphasis on the spiritual warfare and cosmic conflict in which all of us are engaged, whether we realize it or not. Over against the claim that we live our lives merely on a horizontal, human plane, John stresses the all-important vertical dimension. The world is under the control of the Devil—“the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The false teachers are filled with the spirit of the antichrist, evident in their denial of the fact that Jesus is the Messiah (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2–3), and believers are exhorted to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (4:1). Jesus came to destroy the Devil’s works (3:8), and the victory that overcomes the world is our faith (5:4).
In this cosmic conflict, no one can remain neutral. Have you repented of your sin and trusted in Christ? If so, you have been spiritually reborn, “born of God” (2:29; 3:9; see also John 1:12–13; 3:3, 5), and John calls you to live as Jesus lived—to refrain from sin and to love others. If not, you are still in your sins, and you are among the “children of the devil” because you are ruled by him and caught in your sin (3:8, 10).
Echoing his emphasis in the gospel, John extols the virtue of love as supreme in the Christian life. This is so because God Himself is love (4:16), and because God, in His love, sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for sins (v. 10; see John 3:16). In laying down His life for others, Jesus not only provided atonement for sin, He also showed us how to love others (1 John 3:16). Therefore, those who would walk as Jesus walked must live a life supremely characterized by love.
Would those who know you, especially those who know you best, say that you are a man or woman of love? Or would they say that your grasp of doctrine is impeccable but that you often come across as harsh and cold in your actions toward others? If the latter, ask God to help you cultivate true, heartfelt love that comes from the realization that you yourself are a person dearly loved by God, a person for whom Christ died, and so are others.
For John, then, the obligation for Christians can essentially be described as twofold: they must believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and they must love others, especially other believers (3:23).
The main purpose of John’s second letter was to instruct believers not to extend hospitality or support to itinerant false teachers (2 John 9–11). As those who “know the truth” (v. 1), they must actively guard it against those who misrepresent it and take care not to unwittingly undergird the propagation of heretical doctrine. This means that as Christians, we must be educated in Christian doctrine. We must know the truth sufficiently to be able to discern any deviation from it.
Especially instructive in this regard is John’s language in verse 9, where he speaks of an individual who “goes on ahead” and “does not abide in the teaching of Christ.” You may call such people “progressives” or “liberals,” who feel at liberty to go beyond the biblical teaching and move on to novel, innovative doctrines unsupported by Scripture. As John rightly insists, at the heart of such lack of orthodoxy is normally a deficient view of Christ. Similarly, yesterday’s or today’s liberals often deny the full deity and/or humanity of Christ, or the reality of His resurrection. If you are not sure about a person’s beliefs, ask him or her: What do you believe about Jesus Christ? Also, in keeping with John’s purpose for writing his second letter, only support those individuals, organizations, and causes that proclaim the biblical, authentic gospel of salvation, which is found only in the Lord Jesus Christ.
John’s third letter, similar to the second epistle, has to do with extending hospitality to itinerant teachers (3 John 7–8). In addition, John sharply rebukes a certain individual, Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (v. 9). This warns us against dictatorial tendencies among church leaders who are “domineering” those under their charge, as it were (see 1 Peter 5:3), lacking a proper spirit of humility.
On the sure foundation of John’s gospel, his three epistles thus bear witness to the fact that truth will always be contested and stands in continual need of defense by those who hold firm to the apostolic teaching. May you and I live lives of love, and may we courageously rise to the defense of the truth of the gospel in our world, which, as in John’s day, is full of idols (1 John 5:21).