September 17, 2018
General Remarks on First John
It is around the year 85 A.D. Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, as John predicted in Revelation 6-11. The great tribulation of Revelation 2:10 is in full force, and Christians around the Roman Empire have died in it, including Paul and Peter. The aged Apostle John has survived his imprisonment on Patmos, and now lives in Ephesus, from which he exercises Apostolic oversight of the Church in Asia Minor. Despite his efforts, the Church is heavily influenced by false teachers claiming to have more and better knowledge of Christ than John and the Apostles have. Their false gospels have three central themes.
First, they say, God never really became a man. To them, Jesus of Nazareth was a mere human man, who, at His baptism, was infused with the spirit of a God known as Christ. Christ left Jesus at the crucifixion. He returned to Heaven, where He lives with other Gods, especially the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Second, morality has no affect on your relationship with God. Instead of being offended by your wicked deeds, they believe God is completely indifferent to them. He doesn’t care what you do, “as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” He just wants to give you a way to enhance your personal peace, and find unity with Him.
Third, personal peace, and unity with God are achieved through religious experiences, not through faith. Such experiences can range from emotion-centered “worship” to speaking in tongues, healings, and prophetic utterances. Emotional/psychological manipulation is used to create and enhance these experiences, which are often supplemented with drugs and alcohol. Such “worship” may degenerate into drunken orgies. Having such experiences, they say, is the essence of being a “Christian.”
John addresses the false gospels in the letter we know as First John. His letter will be sent to all of the congregations that make up the Church in Asia Minor, including those named in Revelation 2:20-3:22.
1 John 1
John begins at the beginning. “That which was from the beginning” (1), refers to the faith given by Christ to the Apostles. John is saying he and the other Apostles have the true and original Gospel, and the false teachers have false gospels. John, and the Apostles, know they have the original Gospel because they received it from Christ Himself. They were eyewitnesses to the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ. The false teachers claim to have gained their gospels through vision and prophecies, but the Apostles received the true Gospel from Christ. Thus, John can say, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” (3). “This then is the message which we have heard of Him [Christ], and declare unto you” (5).
We might summarise and paraphrase John’s point as: I was there in the beginning. I saw Christ’s miracles. I heard His sermons. I heard His private teachings to the other Apostles. I heard His teaching after the resurrection. I, with the other Apostles, was commissioned by Him to make disciples of all nations. I saw Him ascend to Heaven. I was there at Pentecost. I have been with the other Apostles since the beginning, and all of the Apostles agree about the message and Gospel Christ intends His Church to proclaim.
The false teachers cannot make such claims. They base their gospels on feelings, and dreams, and visions, and prophesies, which John clearly shows are not from God. Therefore, John is calling the Church to make a rational decision. Will you believe a person who was with Christ, or will you believe a person whose message of Christ comes from dreams and visions induced by drugs and alcohol?
The false teachers say morality has no affect on your relationship with God. In their view, sin, as a moral issue, is a figment of your imagination because God does not care what you do. Therefore, repentance, holy living, and even the need for atonement are unnecessary.
John disagrees. To him, God is light without darkness (5), meaning, perfect goodness from which God never, never wavers. Therefore, those who desire fellowship with Him, must walk in light (goodness and truth) with Him (6, 7). Thus, according to the Bible, fellowship, or, unity, with God, is much more than a feeling or a religious experience. It is a transformation of your entire being, which results in your coming out of the darkness of immorality and into the light of God’s righteousness. Those who claim to have fellowship with God, yet remain unchanged in their sinful ways, lie to others and themselves (6). Those who say they have no sin, either because they do not believe anything is sin, or because they believe they have achieved unity with God through religious experiences, deceive themselves (8). Furthermore, those who claim sinlessness, yet believe and live in such open and obvious opposition to the Gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles, make God a liar (10). They contradict His word, which is the same as saying God lies. Those who confess their sins are forgiven and they are the ones who have real fellowship with God. Their fellowship is not based on feelings and experiences, it is based on the atonement for sin purchased by God in Christ on the cross.
To confess sin is to recognise it as sin, and as something that makes you unfit for unity and fellowship with God. It is to recognise that your sin actually makes you worthy of banishment from God’s presence, and punishment for your evil. It is to agree with God that this is so, and to cry out to God to forgive your sins, and allow you to have fellowship with Him in spite of them. God is faithful to forgive the sins of those who confess. He is just to forgive them because Christ bore your sins in His own flesh and blood, and suffered their penalty of death, by dying on the cross. Therefore, in the cross, mercy and justice meet.
1 John 2:1-14
The true Christian is devoted to developing a life-stye of Godliness. His desire is to be like God, and to make righteousness the natural course of his life. Rather than reveling in sin, and calling it righteousness, the true Christian desires to “sin not” (1). John, therefore advises the Church to avoid sin. He is warning Christians to stay away from the false teachers’ congregations and sermons. Do not adopt their ideas or their ways. Instead, obey the commandments of God. Willingly rejoice in righteousness,
A Christian is naturally progressing toward his goal of righteousness (Phil. 3:14). But he is not without sin, yet. Every day he is in hand-to-hand combat with evil (Eph. 6:12), and sometimes, it wins (Rom 7:18-25). Be not dismayed. You have an advocate with God (1). You have someone to plead your case before the Judgement Throne of God. Jesus Christ, the Righteous will defend you. He will not attempt to say you have not sinned. He will not attempt to say your sin is good and natural, therefore, not worthy of condemnation. He freely admits your guilt and your worthiness of punishment. But, He presents His own suffering as the payment for your sins. He presents Himself as the propitiation (2) for your sins, meaning, He has satisfied the Father’s justice by dying for your sins on the cross. Therefore, you are not condemned for your sins. You are free to go.
His propitiation is for the sins of the whole world (2). This does not mean all will be forgiven and go to Heaven. It means His forgiveness is for anyone who calls upon Him in Biblical faith. “Whosoever will, may come.”
How can we know we are real Christians. How can we know whether we are following true or false teachers? You can tell by what you believe. If you believe as the Apostles teach, you may be a true Christian. If you believe what the false teachers teach, you are definitely not a true Christian. In later verses, John writes about the necessity of right doctrine as an indicator of true Christianity. In 2:3 he writes about the necessity of right living. He makes the essential point that you cannot be a true Christian without making a continuing, sincere effort to live a Godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of God.
Godly living means keeping His commandments (3, 4). The false teachers have discarded the commandments of God. They say Biblical morality is restrictive and oppressive to the natural impulses and happiness of humanity. They preach that those who believe in Biblical morality are bigoted haters of mankind. John says, “He that saith, I know Him [God], and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
It is those who keep His commandments who love God. In this way, their love of God is perfected (5). Many, then, and now, say the commandments of God have been replaced by the law of love. But how is love expressed in real life? It must be more than a mere emotion. It must be something that is done, not just felt. John’s point is that you do not love a person from whom you steal, to whom you lie, with whom you fornicate, or whose goods you covet. In other words, you do not love a person if you treat him in a way that is contrary to the law of God. Love is perfected, or approaches the way God loves, only when it moves beyond feelings and intentions into actions. Rather than deceiving, you speak the truth in love. Rather than stealing, you promote the financial freedom and property rights of others. Rather than coveting another’s goods, you work to earn your own, and thankfully enjoy what God gives to you, while actively promoting the rights of others to enjoy their goods.
In the same way, you do not love God if you intentionally break His commandments and ignore His word. Children who love their parents obey their parents. People who love God obey God. Our love for God is perfected as we keep His commandments.
Verse 6, using the analogy of walking, teaches us that true Christians conduct themselves as God conducts Himself. Our thoughts, words, language, and manners will be in accordance with the will and nature of God. We will act like Jesus acts.
The commandment to love is, at the same time, the old commandment of the law, and the new commandment of the Gospel of Christ (7-8). John shows how the law of love applies to human relationships saying “he that hateth his brother is in darkness.”
1 John 2:15-29
Why do the false teachers say there is no sin? Isn’t it because they want to indulge the lusts of the flesh and the eyes (16), yet still be “saved”? Aren’t they trying to have God and the momentary indulgence of sin, at the same time? In short, aren’t they simply trying to justify their sins by saying they are not sins? After telling true Christians our sins are forgiven, John exhorts us not to attempt to justify our sins the way the false teachers do. They love the world. They love the things of the world. They love the lusts of the flesh, and they are desperately seeking a way to cling to them, and still go to Heaven. But John says, “Love not the world” (15-17). Its lusts are not of the Father, and you cannot live for them and God at the same time.
John goes on to say those who preach that it is possible to serve the lusts of the flesh, and God, are of the anti-christ (18). Many of them once seemed to be Christians. They were part of the congregation. They professed the Christian faith. “[T]hey went out from us, but they were not of us.” They were never really part of the true Church. They were never really true Christians. If they had been, they would still be with us.
John turns to the importance of right doctrine. He says those who deny that Jesus is the Christ are liars, and anti-christ (21-23). If we remember that the false teachers claim Jesus of Nazareth was a mere mortal man, temporarily indwelt by the Christ, we begin to understand the meaning of these words. The false teachers are denying that God the Son, the word who was with God and who was God (Jn. 1:1) became flesh and came into the world to give eternal life to people (Jn. 1:10, 1:12, 1:14). They claim God did not bear your sins on the cross. Instead, He let a man die there, and his death accomplished nothing for us. Only the experiences they offer give peace and unity with God. So, the false teachers’ doctrines deny that Jesus is the Christ. John calls their doctrine lies and anti-christ.
He closes the chapter with an appeal to abide in Christ. This means to abide in the true Church, established by Christ through the Apostles. And to abide in the true faith, the one given to the Church by Christ through the Apostles,
1 John 3
Based on the love of God shown in the sacrifice of Christ, which results in our adoption into the family of God (1, 2), true Christians purify themselves (3). This means they attempt to live pure and holy lives, rather than live for the gratification of sinful lusts. The false teachers say such gratification is good and should be enjoyed. The true Christian keeps his desires under control, not allowing them to lead him into sin.
According to the false teachers, the law of God is evil because it prohibits pleasure and happiness. According to John, who learned from Christ, the law of God is good. Transgression of the law is sin (4). Christ came into the world to take away sin (5). He came into the world to forgive those who accept forgiveness. He also came to move us out of sin into Godliness. In these ways, He takes away sin.
John has already established that breaking God’s law is sin (4). In verse 8 he begins to show that sin is of the devil, and those who commit and approve of sin are also of the devil. These verses (8-10) have caused much consternation, therefore it is imperative that we understand their real meaning. John does not mean real Christians never sin after their conversion. He does not even mean it is possible for a Christian to live without sin after conversion. He is not saying Christians will not experience daily failures, even though they strive to live in Godliness. Even the Apostle Paul admitted to having sin in his life (Rom 7:13-25), and who among us would claim to be more righteous and Godly than Paul? Thus, verses 9 and 10 refer to a life-style of Godliness, not sinless perfection. When John writes of those who commit sin, he does not refer to Christians’ failures. He refers to the false teachers, and their followers, who deny that anything is sin, and, therefore wallow like hogs in all manner of wickedness. People who are truly born of God (Jn. 3:16) do not do that. Those who do, are not born of God. By their life-style, the true status of a person is revealed. The Godly do Godliness. The wicked do wickedness (10).
John moves to explain Christian love as the real expression of true faith in everyday life (11-24). Cain is given as an example of hate, and it is implied that the world, including the false teachers, is like Cain in its hatred of the Church. Remember that the Church is in the midst of tribulation when John writes this epistle. The world’s persecution of innocent Christians, who desire to be loyal citizens of their respective cities, and good Romans, is wicked and unjust, just like Cain’s murder of Abel.
Unlike the world, Christians love. Their love is not mere emotion. It is a mind set that moves us to action. It acts to relieve the needs of other Christians, but it also extends to the world at large. Early Christians were noted for taking in widows and orphans and homeless people. John reminds us that God’s commandment is to believe in Him, and love one another. Those who keep His commandment are the ones who dwell in Him. Those who do not keep His commandments do not dwell in Him, no matter how numerous, or how enraptured their religious experiences may be.
1 John 4
Right living and right believing are the two foundational tests of Biblical Christian faith. Major deviations from orthodox doctrine and practice are serious enough to call into question the validity of the faith of a person or a Church. John has been addressing right living, now he begins to address right believing. He warns that not every spirit that claims to know, and/or teach Christ, is true. Many, perhaps even most, are false. Therefore, Christians need to know how to tell one from the other. John says their doctrine will tell you. To confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (2) or to say, “Jesus is the Son of God” (15), is to profess the entire scope of orthodox Christian doctrine, and to repudiate the entire scope of heretical theology espoused by the false teachers.
The false teachers reject the deity of Christ, which is the heart of the Christian faith. If Christ is not God, His death has no effect on our relationship to God, because, for God to forgive our sin, He must bear its cost in Himself. The same is true in human relationships, and, if someone harms you, you must bear the anger and hurt of his transgression, or you must require it of him in the form of punishment and restitution. You cannot transfer your personal cost of forgiveness to another. Neither can God. So, Christ had to be God with us. He had to be Man and God. He had to be sinless. He had to die. He had to rise from the dead, and He had to return to the Father. To affirm your belief in Him as the Son of God, or as Christ come in the flesh, is to affirm all of these truths about Him. The false teachers could not affirm this, therefore, they could not affirm any part of the true Christian faith.
Testing the spirit, then, is a test of doctrinal orthodoxy. John urges the Church to test those who wish to be members, and especially those who want to be teachers and clergy, for doctrinal orthodoxy. If they cannot affirm it, they are not Christians.
1 John 5
The Bible recognises the reality of our natural appetites and desires. From sexuality to the need for food to the desire for comfortable surroundings, the Bible affirms the goodness of these desires, if they are controlled and fulfilled in ways that are in accord with God’s will and righteousness. The Bible also understands that, because our natures have been changed by sin, our appetites often become the major driving force of our lives, and that we often are more concerned about satisfying our lusts than we are about controlling them according to Godliness. This is what John means in 1 John 2:14-16. 2:16 summarises his thought, saying, “For 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.” The false teachers say such lusts are to be openly indulged; the Apostles, following the teachings of Jesus, say such lusts are to be controlled and overcome. In controlling them, we are overcoming the world, and those who are truly born of God overcome the world (4). Perhaps the following summary will help us understand John’s point.
First, real Christians are born of God. This is the new birth John writes of in John 3:3. It is accomplished by God awakening your spirit and re-orienting your life toward God and Godliness.
Second, your spiritual re-birth enables you to trust Christ’s sacrifice to make you right with God. It also enables you to begin to understand and believe the essential elements of orthodox Bible doctrine. Your understanding will be very elementary at first, but it will grow and mature as you mature in Christ.
Third, your spiritual re-birth enables you to begin a life of Godliness. You begin to keep God’s commandments, the essence of which is to love God, believe Biblical doctrine, and love your fellow Christians. You will not be perfect, but your life orientation will be toward Godliness.
Fourth, the one who does the things enumerated above, is the one who overcomes the world. Overcoming the world leads to greater faith and a greater sense of assurance that you are in Christ.
Fifth, reaching point four, above, shows that you have Biblical faith, have been born of God, are a true Christian, are “saved” and are going to Heaven.
Thus, John begins chapter five by reiterating these major points of his epistle, which also happen to be foundational to being a true Christian. This is how faith is the victory that overcomes the world (4).
The water and blood of verse 6 refer to the baptism and death of Christ. The water of His baptism, and the blood He shed at His death, bear witness to His true identity. It was Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Word of God who became flesh, who was identified at baptism, and who died in our place on the cross. Others also bear record of the identity of Christ. The Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are one, and their oneness is proof of the identity of Christ (7). This refutes the ideas of the false teachers that the Father, Son/Word/Christ, and Holy Spirit are three separate and individual Gods. Since they are One God, and since Jesus of Nazareth is the Son/Word/Christ of God, then Jesus of Nazareth is God. He is also Man, but John’s point here is that He is God, as fully and completely as the Father and the Spirit. And these three Persons are One God.
John closes this epistle with the clear statement that it is those who believe in Christ, as He is presented in the Apostolic Teaching, who have eternal life. Those who reject the Apostolic Teaching reject Christ, reject God, and reject eternal life (1, 12). John has written to believers to assure them that they believe the truth, and can have confidence that they have eternal life through Christ (13).
They can also have confidence that God hears their prayers (14). They do not need to have ecstatic or mystical experiences as proof that God hears them. They have the promise of God, and that is enough (20). Therefore, they can have confidence in prayer. Verse 15 does not mean they get everything they ask for in prayer. It does mean the forgiveness of sins, the fellowship of the Church, understanding of Biblical teaching, help to live a Godly life, and fellowship with God, are freely given to those who ask for them in faith. Religious “experiences,” “miracles,” and emotional “feelings” are not necessary. Though desperately sought and prized by the false teachers, they are idols worshiped in the place of God and in which faith is placed instead of God. So John ends with the warning and plea, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”