For the last two weeks, we’ve been studying the general epistles. Here are links to the posts on James’s and Peter’s letters. As I mentioned in those posts, there’s evidence that when the books of the New Testament were first put together the order had James, Peter, John, and Jude’s letters between Acts and Romans (click here to learn more). This meant that if you read straight-through the New Testament, you’d read the general (also called “catholic”) epistles before getting to Paul’s letters. That reading order makes sense, since the letters that James, Peter, John, and Jude write are phrased in simpler language than Paul’s writings. The general epistles also give us a foundation for understanding the connections between Jesus’s teachings, the Old Testament, and our lives as New Covenant believers. You can think of the general epistles as a kind of pre-requisite course to help us with understanding Paul’s writings, similar to how you’d need to take intro to composition courses before specializing in teaching writing.
In today’s post, we’re going to focus on John’s three epistles. The first of these epistles begins without addressing a specific group, though from the context of the letter it’s clear he’s speaking to Christians–those who whom the gospel was preached and who chose to believe it. James’s letter addressed those of Israelite descent who believed in Jesus, Peter’s letters addressed Jewish and Gentile believers, and now John’s letter is written to everyone. The purpose he gives for writing this letter is “so that our joy may be complete” (or “your joy” depending on the Greek manuscript you use) (1 John 1:4, all quotes from NET).The mention of joy comes at the beginning of all three of his letters, and frames the encouraging and weighty subjects he’ll be covering.
Walk in the Light
The strongest theme throughout John’s three epistles is love. Here is where we learn “God is love,” and are reminded over and over that because God loves us we must love one another. Though John brings up other topics as well, he ties them all back to this core message. God is love, and because we’ve received God’s love we are duty-bound to respond to God and to other people in certain ways.
We’ll return to love before the end of this post, but that word actually doesn’t show up in John’s first letter until the second chapter. Originally, of course, there wouldn’t have been chapters dividing up the text of this letter, but that fact does make me curious about what things John felt it was important to talk about before diving into the main theme of his letter.
Now this is the gospel message we have heard from him and announce to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him and yet keep on walking in the darkness, we are lying and not practicing the truth. But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we do not bear the guilt of sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us.1 John 1:5-10, NET
This recap of the gospel is what John starts his letter with. “God is light” is something that he wants to establish for his readers before sharing that “God is love.” If he just started off with “God is love,” then perhaps his readers might make the mistake that so many modern people have of assuming that because God is love, His love doesn’t come with any expectations placed on us. We who’ve received God’s love and who’ve been cleansed from our sins by Jesus’s sacrifice must walk in the light as well as live in God’s love. In short, we must “walk just as Jesus walked” (1 John 2:6).
John’s instruction to walk in God’s light is not a new commandment (1 John 2:7). It echoes all the commands from the Old Testament that could be summed-up as “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9-10; James 2:8). On the other hand, John also describes this as “a new commandment” because the darkness of old has now passed away and we have a far clearer picture of the true light shining through Jesus Christ (1 John 2:8). As Jesus said, he came to fill the “law and the prophets” to their fullest extent. Doing that magnifies what obedience looks like now as we follow the spirit of God’s commands. With that background, John moves into talking about love.
The one who says “I have come to know God” and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person. But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected. …
The one who says he is in the light but still hates his fellow Christian is still in the darkness. The one who loves his fellow Christian resides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him.1 John 2:4-5, 9-10, NET
Be Warry of Dangers
John’s not writing about the contrast between people who are in God’s love and light and the people who are living a lie in order to scare us. Indeed, he has some very reassuring things to say to his readers (1 John 2:12-14). He’s writing to them, and to us, because we’ve been forgiven, we know God, and we are already overcoming the evil one. But John also knows that Christians face many challenges, and it’s easy to slip away if we don’t have reminders for how to follow God. So he writes to us about the wonderful life that God offers. He reminds us of all the wonderful things that await us as people who God calls His very own children. He also talks about the fact that if we have that hope inside us, we will work to purify ourselves just as God is pure (1 John 3:1-3). Alongside all this talk of love and light, John highlights the need to keep God’s commandments and stay faithful to Him in spite of the dangers we face.
Over and over again in these letters and in the gospel he wrote, John links love with commandment keeping. Alongside that, John highlights the importance of living according to the truth. This idea goes along with walking in the light, keeping God’s commandments, and practicing righteousness. In both of his two shorter letters, John says that he rejoices to learn that his children (apparently referring to those he taught this faith to) are living in the truth (2 John 1:4; 3 John 1:4). Living and walking in the truth ought to be our intention as well, but there are many things that try to work against that goal.
Many dangers face God’s people, and a lot of them are spiritual. One example that John talks about is people who are “antichrist.” Though there is a figure known as “the antichrist” coming in the end times, Johan says we’re currently in “the last hour” and that “many antichrists” have already appeared. These are often people who were once part of the Christian body, but have now left and who deny both the Father and the Son (1 John 2:18-19, 22-26). Much like Peter did in his second epistle, John warns that the most dangerous antichrists are those who are working from inside the church to subvert people into denying the Father and/or the Son. For that reason, we need to “test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1-6; see also 2 John 1:7-11).
Even though John is very reassuring to his readers and continually reminds them of things like “we have eternal life” (1 John 5:12-13), he also does not soften the strength of his warnings. In the second letter, he even says, “Watch out, so that you do not lose the things we have worked for, but receive a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:7-8). John wants us to take these warnings seriously and let them inspire us to remain in holiness. Whether or not we choose light, love, and commandment keeping is a choice that has eternal consequences.
It’s in the context of all these reminders, reassurances, and warnings that John highlights the vital importance of love. In these three letters, “love” is translated from agape or its root word agapao. This is a selfless, benevolent love that always seeks the good of the one who is loved. Agape is often described as “godly love,” although other words, like philos are also used of God’s love in the New Testament. As we read through John’s letters, we’re warned not to “love the world or the things in the world,” but rather to focus our love on God as we practice the things which are in accordance with His will (1 John 2:15-17).
John tells us, “Everyone who does not practice righteousness—the one who does not love his fellow Christian—is not of God” (1 John 3:10). From that, we can infer that practicing righteousness involves loving our brethren. Indeed, John goes on to say, “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians” (1 John 3:14). It’s worthwhile at this point to go and read all of chapters 3 and 4 because that section of the letter goes into so much depth on this particular topic. Because of God’s love for us–which results in us being redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice and being called the Father’s children–“we also ought to love one another “(1 John 4:11). If we don’t genuinely love each other, we can’t even say that we love God. Unless our love includes other believers, we have no concept of what God’s love truly means. And our love must also include keeping God’s commandments (2 John 1:5-6).
As John wraps up his letter, he looks back on everything discussed so far and says this:
We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life. Little children, guard yourselves from idols.1 John 5:18-21, NET
I find John’s writings some of the most poetic and inspiring of the New Testament. His emphasis on God’s light and love is beautiful, and I love the way he talks about God welcoming us into His light and His family. In a compassionate, empathetic way, John also writes about the need for Christians to live and walk in a certain way. We’re not to be fearful, worried that God will cut us off and cast us away if we slip-up, but we must at the same time commit to practicing righteousness instead of sin. God has given us everything we need for salvation. He loves us and He wants us as part of His family. We just need to be on guard to make sure we don’t let those good things slip away from us through neglect or rejection. We know the truth of what’s going on in this world and behind the scenes, including that the world lies under the power of the evil one. With that in mind, we can be vigilant in order to guard against putting any idols before God or falling prey to the influences of those who are antichrist.
Featured image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock