1, 2 and 3 John
The Gospel of John was written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name’ (20:31). The fourth Gospel was therefore written for both believers as well as unbelievers. As for the purpose of the first epistle of John, the reason why it was written is stated in 1 John 5:13: ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know you have eternal life’. 1 John was therefore written for believers. It is primarily about fellowship with God, which is the essence of eternal life. 1 John was written “so that” we may have fellowship with God the Father, his Son Jesus Christ and with other believers (1 John 1:3), “so that” our joy may be complete (1 John 1:4), “so that” we may not sin (1 John 2:1) and “so that” we will not be deceived (1 John 2:26).
Themes and Content
This epistle includes numerous usages of the word “know” (1 John 2:3-5, 11, 13-14, 3:2, 5, 14, 16; 4:2, 6-8; 5:13, 15, 18-20, to name but a few). It is also accompanied by frequent references to being born again, or being born of God (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18 (twice)). Jesus said: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). ‘Eternal life, the life that is real, is a gift from God to those who trust His Son as their Saviour’ (Wiersbe 2007:961). ‘Fellowship with God is the essence of life’ (Constable 2017:4). John encourages believers to enjoy a more abiding and intimate fellowship with God (1 John 1:3-4; cf. Bailey & Constable 1999:580). The conditions for better fellowship with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ include obedience (“saying” vs. “doing”), love and truth (Wiersbe 2007:963).
Attributes of God
Two attributes of God are especially highlighted in 1 John. The first is: ‘God is light and in him is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5). Believers cannot walk in sin and darkness (i.e. disobedience) and also enjoy fellowship with God (1 John 1:6). ‘Walking in the light means living here on earth the way Jesus lived when He was here and the way He is right now in heaven’ (Wiersbe 2007:968). Conditions for living in the light (1 John 1:8-2:29) include renouncing sin (1:8-2:2), obeying God (2:3-11), rejecting worldliness (2:12-17) and keeping the faith (2:18-29) (Bailey & Constable 1999:582-585). Believers cannot love darkness more than the light, but should instead be real, honest and continually seek the light (1 John 1:9; cf. John 3:19).
The second attribute of God highlighted in 1 John is: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8; cf. 3:1-3). This is the love of God, that the life that is real and which is eternal — the Word of life — has been manifested among us so that we might live through Him (1 John 1:1-3; 4:9). We are commanded to love (1 John 2:7-11) because as born-again children of God, His love lives in us (1 John 3:10-24) and all this because God loved us first (1 John 4:7-21). Wiersbe (2007:988) emphasises that loving the brethren is a matter of life and death: ‘He that loves not his brother abides in death’ (1 John 3:14). The person who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in that person (1 John 4:16).
Love and Truth
God’s love is never divorced from truth and, since Jesus is the truth, a person cannot have fellowship with God except through Jesus Christ (John 14:6; 1 John 4:9). 1 John refutes heresies prevalent in John’s day, such as early Gnosticism, Docetism or Cerinthianiasm (cf. Tenney 1985:375-376), but similar heresies are prevalent today. Some say Christ is only divine but this heresy denies that Jesus took on humanity: ‘Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God’ (1 John 4:2-3; cf. 2 John 7). Many deny that Jesus is the Messiah (but this is heresy), some say Jesus is only a man but this heresy denies Christ’s divinity and many deny the Father-Son relationship (also heresy): ‘Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whosoever confesses the Son has the Father also’ (1 John 2:22-23). ‘If a man is wrong about Jesus Christ, he is wrong about God, because Jesus Christ is the final and complete revelation of God to men’ (Wiersbe 2007:960).
1 John emphasises the themes of eternal life, light and love. Tenney (1985:377) notes that the apostle John writes ‘symphonically’, meaning the letter is ‘constructed much like a piece of music rather than like a brief for a debate’. Although this undoubtedly makes John’s writings unique and beautiful, it may make it more difficult to outline 1 John. Bailey & Constable (1999:580-581) provide the following broad outline for 1 John:
Introduction: The purpose of the epistle (1:1-4)
Living in the Light (1:5-2:29)
Living as children of God (3:1-5:13)
Conclusion: Christian confidence (5:14-21).
One advertisement after the other try to convince you: ‘It satisfies!’ But of course, it does not (so, why buy more?). The world system under Satan continues to enslave people through the lust of the flesh, the lust of eyes and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). Sin may be pleasurable, but it is only for a season — and then death kicks in. The world system cannot satisfy anyone, in fact it is passing away along with its lusts (1 John 2:17). Did not Ecclesiastes say that everything ‘under the sun’ is vanity? But God makes no empty promises. To be saved from the penalty and ruin of one’s sins, one must place one’s faith and trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is why John wrote the Gospel that bears his name (John 20:31). God’s offer is eternal life, light and love through the Word of life (cf. 1 John 1:1-3). The life that is real is the life in fellowship with God. Fellowship with God is what 1 John is all about. Jesus Christ said: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me’ (John 14:6). Only God truly satisfies (cf. 1 John 1:3-4).
2 John and 3 John
The apostle John probably wrote 1, 2 & 3 John in AD 90-95 from Ephesus — after he wrote the Gospel of John but before he wrote Revelation. Tenney (1985:375) views 2 & 3 John as ‘covering letters’ for the main letter 1 John. Before he was exiled to the island of Patmos, the apostle John ministered to the churches in Asia Minor, including the 7 churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3.
Since it is best to read the reference to the ‘lady and her children’ (2 John 1) in a normal and plain sense, this personal letter is addressed to specific persons. 2 John exhorts believers to abide in truth (2 John 2, 4) and to resist false teachers (2 John 7).
Hodges (1983:905-906) provides the following outline for 2 John: Preamble (1-3), The truth practised (3-6), The truth protected (7-11), Farewell (12-13).
As for 3 John, Bailey & Constable (1999:598) provides this outline: Introduction (1-4), Gaius’s love (5-8), Diotrephes’s lack of love (9-11), Demetrius’s evidence of love (12), Conclusion (13-14).
3 John is a very personal letter to Gaius (3 John 1), possibly delivered by Demetrius (3 John 12). The ‘reciprocal importance of truth and love — revealed truth being the basis for true love — is present in both 2 and 3 John. But whereas the emphasis in 2 John is on the truth, the emphasis in 3 John is on love’ (Bailey & Constable 1999:598). 2 John warns against showing hospitality to false teachers (2 John 7-11), but 3 John condemns the lack of hospitality to faithful ministers of the Word (vv. 9, 10).
Bailey, M.L. & Constable, T.L., 1999, Nelson’s New Testament Survey, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on 1 John, 2017 edition, Sonic Light.
Hodges, Z.C., ‘2 John’, in J.F. Walvoord & R.B. Zuck (eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp 905-909, David C Cook, Colorado Springs.
Tenney, M.C., 1985, New Testament Survey, revised edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
Wiersbe, W.W., 2007, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C Cook, Colorado Springs.
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