1 JohnRead Scripture
From the earliest days of the church, the author of these letters was assumed to be the Apostle John. The style of writing, vocabulary, and theology closely resemble his gospel. Many scholars today, however, reject this consensus and believe we do not know who wrote them. These scholars assert that the letters are anonymous since the text of the letters does not state the author’s name. On the other hand, the titles or subscriptions of every ancient copy we have of these letters contains the name “John.”1 Furthermore, the author clearly asserts he was an eyewitness of the ministry of Jesus (1Jn 1:1–3), speaks with authority which he expects to be recognized, and apparently is well known enough to simply identify himself as “the elder.” The historic affirmation of the church that the Apostle John is the author makes good sense and fits the evidence well.
We do not know when these letters were written or even the exact order of the letters. Various theories have been proposed about the relationship of the three letters to one another, but certainty on these things is in short supply. What we do know is that in these letters we see the great apostle functioning as a shepherd—teaching, consoling, urging, comforting, and challenging his people so that they might have joy and might know they have eternal life.
1 John was written to encourage faithful struggling believers that they were holding on to the truth and to help them persevere while others had been taken in by false teaching.
“And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.”
— 1 John 5:20 ESV
I. Prologue: Authoritative Witness to the Incarnation (1:1–4)
II. The Necessity of Holiness (1:5–2:2)
III. The Necessity of Obedience (2:3–6)
IV. The Necessity of Loving Fellow Christians (2:7–11)
V. Gospel Encouragements (2:12–14)
VI. The Snare of Loving the World (2:15–17)
VII. The Necessity of Discernment (2:18–27)
VIII. Confidence as God’s Children at Christ’s Return (2:28–3:3)
IX. The Necessity of Righteousness (3:4–10)
X. The Necessity of Love (3:11–18)
XI. Assurance Despite our Failures (3:19–24)
XII. The Necessity of Discernment and the Spirit of Anti-Christ (4:1–6)
XIII. Love which Reveals God (4:7–12)
XIV. Abiding in God and Perfected Love (4:13–21)
XV. Faith in Jesus Overcomes the World (5:1–5)
XVI. Testimony to the Person of Christ (5:6–12)
XVII. Summary and Conclusion: Assurance (5:13–21)
Prologue: Authoritative Witness to the Incarnation (1:1–4)
1:1–3 Instead of the greetings and identification typical of first century letters, John begins immediately with a strong affirmation of the truth and authority of the apostolic message which he has previously proclaimed to his audience. “We” could refer simply to John but probably refers to the apostles as a whole. He preaches what all the apostles preach. And the apostles preach what they all “heard,” “saw,” “looked upon,” and “touched.” Further in the letter we learn that false teachers are at work (1Jn 4:1). In contrast, John announces the credentials of his message at the outset. And his message is not an idea but a person. That this person was “from the beginning” suggests his deity. That John has been both seen and touched this person points to his incarnation and thus his humanity. This one who is preached brings with him—and is identified with—life, eternal life. John and other apostles proclaim this one precisely because he brings eternal life, and this eternal life involves fellowship with God the Father and God the Son, who is Jesus Christ.
1:4 Thus, John announces that his message is the one authorized by the fact that he walked with Jesus, saw his ministry and heard him directly. This is the message which brings life and unites those who believe in fellowship with God. Strikingly, this message also unites true believers with one another. These are not indifferent matters. Eternal life is at stake. John writes so that his joy and the joy of his readers might be complete. The text could read “our joy” or “your joy.” The difference is not great since the joy of his readers is in view in either case, and as a faithful pastor, John’s joy will be bound up with theirs (see 2 Jn 4; 3 Jn 3–4).
In this opening paragraph we discover what is at stake: the identity and authority of the apostolic gospel, the fellowship of the church, and the souls of the readers. False teaching which denies central truths about Jesus’s identity is serious and dangerous. It cannot be treated lightly but must be confronted with Scriptural authority (the apostolic witness) for the sake of the joy and eternal life of people. John also provides a good pastoral example standing in authority but doing so clearly for the joy of his people.
The Necessity of Holiness (1:5–2:2)
1:5 John moves now into more details of the message about Jesus. The note of authority is still here as John points out that this message came “from him,” Jesus. The key point of the message stressed here is holiness. “Light” and “darkness” are commonly used images for good and evil in Scripture generally (Job 18:5–6, 18; 30:26; Isa 5:20; Luke 11:33–36; Acts 26:18) and in John’s gospel specifically (John 1:5; 3:19; 12:46). Central to the gospel message is the utter holiness of God. John goes on to tease out the ethical implications of this fact for any who will be in fellowship with such a holy God.
1:6–9 The rest of this section consists of three “If we say” statements with responses. “If we say” introduces a false claim someone might make in regards to personal holiness, and the following statement provides the rebuttal. So, if we claim to be in fellowship with God while continuing in sin, we lie and fail to live out the truth. You cannot be in fellowship with an utterly holy God while making sin your pattern of life. In contrast, pursuing holiness according to God’s word (“walking in the light”) maintains fellowship with other believers and shows that we are those who have been cleansed by Jesus’s sacrificial death. This call to holiness might prompt some to claim that they have no sin at all, but John says it is merely self-deception for anyone to claim to be without sin. Although we must not endorse or excuse sin, the answer is not to hide our sin or to act like we are free from it. Rather the answer is to confess our sin, acknowledging it before God. True confession is a frightful thing because in doing so, we admit sin before a holy God. Only because of the sacrificial death of Jesus is God able and willing to forgive our sins, making confession a joy rather than a phobia. God is faithful to his promises to forgive (the broader new covenant is in view here) and righteous in forgiving us since Jesus has died in our place.
1:10–2:2 Here John returns to someone claiming sinlessness and brings the series of three statements to a conclusion. A claim to sinlessness calls God a liar since God has said we are sinful and has sent his Son to deal with this problem. The reality of sinfulness does not negate the importance of fighting against sin—this is one of John’s reasons for writing—but the answer to our sin is not denying or hiding it but turning to our “advocate” who has died in our place to “propitiate” (turn away God’s wrath) we so justly deserve. Sin causes fear, and fear can lead us to unhelpfully excuse or hide our sin. Instead we must trust God—as we did in first becoming a Christian—and acknowledge our sin to him. For those who have trusted in him, he has covenanted with them to cleanse them and keep them. This entire work of God is all of sheer grace. Although we hate our sin and fight it, we recognize its continual existence and we come regularly to this throne of grace in our time of need. We kill our sin not by hiding or excusing it but by openly confessing it and depending on Jesus.
Will Everyone Be Saved in the End?
1 John 2:2 is sometimes misunderstood to teach that Jesus has redeemed all people even if they never repent of their sins and trust in Jesus. This claim would contradict the rest of this letter and the rest of the New Testament since John regularly refers to a distinction between true and false believers (e.g., 1:5–7). John is not flatly contradicting himself in the same paragraph. Rather John’s point is that the atoning work of Christ is not for just one limited group of people in the world. Instead, Jesus is the only atoning sacrifice available to the whole world.
The Necessity of Obedience (2:3–6)
2:3–5a John now shifts to the topic of obedience. Obedience to Jesus’s commands are evidence (“by this we know”) that we really “know” Jesus and have a saving relationship with him. To “know” Jesus is used here synonymously with being “in him,” and both phrases are part of John’s vocabulary for being a true believer. Just as obedience proves you know Jesus, disobedience disproves any claim to know him. Obeying God also leads to the maturing of the love of God within that person. This link between obedience and love will continue to arise throughout the letter.
2:5b–6 These verses restate the overall point in a different image: walking in the way of Jesus. “Walk” (cf. 1:6–7) is a common biblical way to refer to the manner of one’s life. Thus, to walk in the way Jesus did is to live the way he did, that is, to live according to his commands. Put simply, to know Jesus is to obey him. The previous section reminds us that sinless perfection is not in view. Rather the point is the general tenor of one’s life. If someone’s life is not generally oriented toward obedience to God’s commands, there is no reason to believe they really know God. This point is very important for pastors to consider, especially in settings where people are accustomed to going through the motions of Christian worship. No matter whether a person holds membership in a church or attends services or holds office or is compelling as a speaker, if that person is not submitting to the commands of Christ and seeking to live according to them, that person does not know God.
The Necessity of Loving Fellow Christians (2:7–11)
2:7–9 From holiness and obedience, John turns to love for fellow believers. He introduces this section on love by referring to his readers as “beloved,” the first occurrence of this term in the letter. The word is no mere formality but one of several clues to John’s deep pastoral love for these people, the spring from which this letter flows. His point is not immediately clear because he begins with a back-and-forth over whether this commandment (not yet identified) is new or old. Not until 1 John 2:9 do we discover that the command in view is to love your brother (i.e., a fellow Christian). The command to love is not new because they have heard it from the beginning of their Christian experience as a basic Christian teaching. The command also has been known since the beginning of Scripture, being found in the earliest revelation, the Pentateuch (e.g., Lev 19:18). At the same time, this old commandment is new in Christ (“in him”) and the breaking-in of the new covenant, referred to as a shining “light” causing the darkness to begin passing away (1Jn 2:8). In light of the glorious new covenant and Jesus’s embodying this self-sacrificial love at the cross, we can understand this command in deeper ways than anyone could prior to the Christ-event. Thus, this long-known old commandment is also fresh and new.
2:10–11 Given the old and new nature of the commandment of love, no one can truly be in the light while also violating this basic tenet of the faith by hating a fellow Christian (“a brother”). Hatred of a fellow Christian is a refutation of the faith, and John states this in strong terms. One who loves fellow believers is in the light, which, as in 1 John 1:6–7, means being in fellowship with God (i.e., being truly converted) but also here, in light of 1 John 2:8, suggests participating in the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Furthermore, the one who loves does not create any cause for others to stumble. To love other Christians is to participate in the growth of the kingdom of God, and to fail to love is to hinder the growth of the kingdom. In fact, the one who hates other Christians is in the domain of darkness, stands apart from salvation, and walks without true direction. Such a one is spiritually blind (cf. Jesus’s rebuke of this condition, John 9:35–41).
Gospel Encouragements (2:12–14)
2:12–14 This section is sometimes indented in Bibles because of its seeming poetic repetition and symmetry. But, the repetition and variation has led to a good bit of confusion. Who are the “children,” “fathers,” and “young men” (each mentioned twice)? What are we to make of the statements to each group?
Since the whole church is repeatedly referred to as “children” in this letter, the term is unlikely to denote a subset of the church here. “Fathers” refers to church members with a bit more maturity, and “young men” refers to the rest of the church in a positive way, suggesting promise and potential. Each group is reminded of specific benefits of the gospel.
Thus, this section is a rhetorical pause, in which John in essence says, “Stay with me! I am writing to remind you of the important benefits of the gospel which you enjoy.” Having just three tests of true faith (holiness, obedience, and love for fellow believers), he pauses and reminds them of their gospel benefits before addressing the problem of the world and those who have turned away from this gospel.
We can be wearied as we fight sin, leading to a reluctance to obey and a selfish hesitance to love. We frequently need to be reminded that this gospel which calls us to a different lifestyle has already secured for us the forgiveness of sins, the knowledge of God, and victory over the Evil One, as well as implanting within us the Word of God. These gospel realities empower and inspire us to obey and to gladly walk in the light.
The Snare of Loving the World (2:15–17)
2:15–16 In 1 John 2:7–11, we were told that we must love fellow Christians. Now, after the rhetorical pause (2:12–14), John tells us what we must not love—the world. “Do not love the world” stands out as the first imperative in the letter. To understand this command, we must properly define “world.”
What Does John Mean When He Talks about the “World”?
John does not mean the planet earth or humanity in general, as if this were a call to a dualism, renouncing the physical realm or a tribalism restricting care to only one group. Rather, John uses “world” (Greek, kosmos) throughout the book to refer the realm of rebellion against God (see 1Jn 4:4–5) which does not know God (3:1), hates believers (3:13) and “lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19). This identity is made even clearer as John describes the content of the world in 1 John 2:16: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride in possessions. These things are “not from the Father,” but arise instead from sin. These are dispositions of the heart which are bent on self. John is at least partially saying, “Do not love the things which will destroy you.” The “desires of the flesh” are sinful desires broadly including but not limited to improper sexual desires, gluttony, and drunkenness. “Desires of the eyes” refers to the longing for what one sees without consideration of whether it is good or appropriate, as when someone says, “I saw this and just had to have it.” These are the desires of the world, and Christians must not be ruled by them because they are contrary to the desires of Christ. We do not love them, for we live according to our loves.
2:17 The world—this sinful, rebellious way of living apart from God—and its desires as described above are passing away. They do not last. Pleasure in sin exists for a season, but it passes away, leaving you worse off than before. These desires are fleeting, and thus are not the way to live for the future. Doing the will of God (pursuing holiness, obeying Christ’s commands, loving one another) leads to abiding, eternal life. Sinful desires are fleeting; obedience to God is firm.
The Necessity of Discernment (2:18–27)
In this section we discover what has probably caused John to write this letter. Some members of this church have departed from the community, following a distorted understanding of the identity of Jesus. These people have not remained in what they “heard from the beginning” and are trying to deceive John’s audience to follow them in their new beliefs. Because they distort the proper understanding of Jesus and deny in some way that “Jesus is the Christ,” they are “anti-Christ.” This doctrinal error seems to be the reason John needs to address how to discern whether someone is truly a Christian. The problems concerning Christian practices of holiness, obedience, and love arise from this doctrinal root.
2:18 According to the New Testament, we entered the “last days” or “last hour” after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus (Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2. See also, 1Cor 10:11; Heb 9:26; 1Pet 4:7), so this is not referring to a countdown until Jesus returns. The presence of false teachers is also a known feature of this time (2Tim 3:1; 2Pet 3:3). John is reminding the people that they ought not be surprised that false teachers have afflicted their church. This is an important point. The New Testament frequently warns of false teachers, and although Christians at some level believe this, they are often shocked when they confront the reality in their own churches. We should always be saddened by the presence and work of false teachers, but we ought not be shocked. We should be prepared because God warns us ahead of time.
2:19 In this instance some have departed from the faith, and John helps us to understand this theologically. The New Testament is clear, once more, that there will be people who profess faith in Christ only later to walk away from the faith. How do we understand this? John tells us that this is not the case of people losing a salvation they once had. Rather, these people leave “us” (the community of true faith) because they were never truly of us. That is, although they professed faith, they never truly possessed faith. Those who truly possess faith persevere in that faith; they “continue with us.” Again, while we will be deeply saddened by such defections, we must be prepared, knowing that apostasy will occur along the way.
2:20–21 The threat and reality of apostasy can be unsettling, so John assures those who remain by referring to their anointing and knowledge. “Anointing” in the Old Testament showed that God had chosen someone and set them apart for a specific task. Here, ultimately, John means they are truly converted. Specifically, the anointing may refer either to the apostolic teaching, by which they have the knowledge mentioned here, or to the Holy Spirit who is often associated with anointing in the Old Testament and in John’s gospel is the one who will lead Christ’s followers into all truth (John 16:13). In the end, the Holy Spirit and truth are intimately connected so the difference is not great. These believers have heard the apostolic teaching and have held fast to it, aided by the Holy Spirit, so they should take comfort. John is writing to them not because they did not know this truth but because they do know it and have held fast to it. One common trait of false teaching is the suggestion that some new truth beyond the Scripture—or hidden in Scripture until this teacher found it—is needed. If we hold fast to the Scriptures (the apostolic teaching), we have the truth we need for knowing and serving God. The truth of Scripture handed down from the beginning is that in which we must abide and, in so doing, we will persevere.
2:22–23 The truth of Scripture will not allow any denial of the Son or disjunction between the Father and the Son. What we believe about Jesus is eternally important. Doctrine is important. Much about the Godhead is mysterious, but the central truths about who Jesus is must be held faithfully. This passage affects how we respond when people say that various religions worship the same God as Christianity. If anyone denies the Son, he denies the Father. No one truly worships Yahweh as he is if that person denies the deity of Jesus.
2:26–27 John is a faithful pastor working diligently to protect his flock from false teaching and to ground them in the safety of God’s truth. We must not misunderstand John’s comment that they “have no need that anyone should teach you.” Despite the claims of some, this statement does not mean that once we have the Holy Spirit we no longer need human teachers. Not only would this fly in the face of the rest of New Testament teaching, it would render this letter useless! John is not at the same time teaching them and telling them teaching is unnecessary. Rather, he is saying they do not need anyone to lay again the foundation of basic belief. The anointing (whether Holy Spirit or apostolic teaching) has shown them the foundation of their faith. False teachers commonly suggest that their followers must scrap all previous teachings about the Bible. John tells them just the opposite. Rather he urges them to abide in God and in his teaching as they have received it.
Confidence as God’s Children at Christ’s Return (2:28–3:3)
The dire danger of turning away from the faith and John’s pastoral comfort lead naturally to the hope of Christ’s return (note that the last section and this one are introduced with John’s use of the tender, familial term “children”). The last section ended with a call to abide, and now John continues that idea, noting an important result—that we can meet the Lord with confidence at his return rather than shrinking back in shame as those who have turned away will.
2:28 Eager anticipation of Christ’s return is a staple component of the New Testament, so John turns to this truth to emphasize the seriousness of the false teaching and the glory in store for those who hold fast. The return of Christ is certain. The question is whether you will meet him in joy or shame.
2:29–3:1a John takes back up the theme of righteousness (related to obedience and holiness discussed before). Since Jesus is righteous, those who are his will be righteous. John refers to being “born of” God which leads him to reflect on the amazing privilege of being “called children of God.” “See” or “behold” connotes awe and amazement. The apostle revels in the fact that God would not only forgive sinners such as us but that he would go so far as to make us his children. We must linger on this long enough to marvel along with John. This glorious truth helps to ground the call to perseverance. False teaching often promises some new insight or privilege. John says the privilege of being God’s child trumps anything else false teachers have to offer.
3:1b–3 In fact, this truth is only the beginning because it also means that when Jesus returns, we will be made like him—completely righteous. This promise is only precious, though, to those who love righteousness. The world, therefore, does not “know” (i.e., understand, appreciate) Jesus or us. Unrighteousness will not esteem the Righteous One or his children. We ought not expect the ways of God to make sense to the world, providing one reason why accommodation to the world will never work. But for children of God, this hope of complete purification at Christ’s return does not produce apathy about holiness now. Rather our coming purification animates our present pursuit of holiness.
The Necessity of Righteousness (3:4–10)
3:4 This section connects closely with the previous one. John continues the theme of righteousness (see 1Jn 2:29) with the strongest statement on the necessity of righteousness so far in the letter. Practicing righteousness and practicing sin are the primary issues in this section. Sin is first equated with lawlessness, and in contrast, righteousness is expected of believers since God himself is righteous.
Do Christians Still Sin?
The challenge of 1 John 3:4–10 is the absolute sounding statements about sin in the life of a Christian.
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (3:6)
“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil” (3:8)
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning . . . he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (3:9)
Do these texts teach that once a person is converted they will never sin again? And, that if a person does commit a sin, does this prove they have never been converted? It could sound that way. John, however, has already in this letter held out the possibility of Christians sinning and rebuked the suggestion that any of us are without sin (1:8–2:2). The wording John uses in this passage shows that he does not have in view isolated sinful acts but an overall lifestyle. Christians still struggle with sin, but they have made a decisive break with sin, the flesh, and the devil. Sin still occurs but is no longer the overarching tenor of their lives. Believers will move toward holiness.
3:5–10 One reason Christians must break with sin, is that a key purpose of Jesus’s incarnation was to “take away sins” and to “destroy the works of the devil [particularly sin].” And just as God’s people are righteous because he is, so also sin is the marker of those who follow the devil because “the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” “The beginning” refers at least to the first we hear of the devil and may suggest sin begins with him. Sinning is as basic to the devil’s character as righteousness is to God’s, and the people of both will be marked by the character of either the devil or God. Our behavior is ultimately evidence of whose children we are.
The Necessity of Love (3:11–18)
3:11–15 The command to “love one another” is linked to “the beginning” once more (as in 1Jn 2:7), part of John’s emphasis on the fact that he is not teaching something new (as the false teachers are) but reminding them of basic Christian truth which they have long known. Cain is his negative example as one who does not love his brother and murders him (Gen 4). The Cain example is developed in two ways.
- The World Hating Christians: Cain murdered his brother because of hate, and he hated his brother because his brother’s deeds were righteous. In the same way we ought not be surprised when people of the world, like Cain, hate us. If we follow righteousness, those is in the world will hate us (John 16:33; 2Tim 3:12).
- Christians Hating Christians: 1 John 3:15 equates hating your brother (i.e., fellow Christian) with murder. You cannot hate fellow Christians and claim to have the life of Christ in you. In fact, the first murderer, Cain, was “of the evil one.” In this way, hatred is linked with murder, and both are antithetical to God and rooted in the evil one.
John is not saying that no murderer can be converted (the Apostle Paul would be a counter-example). Nor is he speaking of self-defense or accidental slaying (The Old Testament distinguishes these from murder; see Exod 21:12–14; Deut 4:41–43; 19:1–13). Rather, he is saying that no one who is converted can wantonly destroy innocent human life. It is striking that the word used here for “murderer” (anthropoktonos) occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in John 8:44 where it refers to the devil.
3:16–18 Having described hate and its workings, John turns to describe the sort of love he has in mind. The love which the gospel creates within believers is not mere sentiment or well wishing. Rather the model for this love is the self-sacrificial act of Jesus on our behalf. As Jesus died for us, so we ought also be willing to die for one another. Then, having countered a minimizing of this love, John now makes sure we do not limit it to grand, heroic steps either (i.e., simply dying for one another). This sort of love meets everyday needs for others and does not close off its heart to their distress and need. True Christian love can never be merely words but always results in actions—just as God’s love did for us (cf. John 3:16). Love, like faith, without works is dead. To love “in truth” means to love sincerely and to love in accordance with “truth,” i.e., the gospel.
Assurance Despite our Failures (3:19–24)
“This” in 1 John 3:19 refers to proper Christian love as described in the previous section. This kind of love is evidence of knowing God and, thus, serves as a ground for assurance that we have been converted. This paragraph closes with another statement about how we can know that we are Christians. When we keep his commandments, which includes loving one another and “believing in the name of his Son Jesus Christ,” then “we know” that God abides in us by his Holy Spirit. Thus, this paragraph pulls together three key marks of a true believer mentioned in the letter: doctrine (proper belief about Jesus), love of fellow Christians, and obedience.
3:19–21 Between these statements on evidences of conversion, John speaks of “reassuring our hearts” and of hearts either condemning or not condemning us. Even though we have evidence of conversion, times will come when we feel guilty and thus think we cannot come before God. That such times would come should be no surprise since an “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:11) who is a liar (John 8:44) seeks to destroy us by saying we do not know God or have forgiveness. John’s remedy is to call for honest evaluation. We often need faithful brothers and sisters to help with such an evaluation since we do not see our own selves clearly. Once this evaluation is complete, we must rest in Christ since he is greater than our hearts. Our hearts are not the final judge. God overrules them. No matter how we feel, what God has forgiven stands forgiven. God knows everything—all the depths of our sin as well as the depths of his atoning work.
3:22–24 Here John makes clear that the context of this discussion (“before God,” 1Jn 3:21) is prayer, and it provides a wonderful promise. We must be careful neither to abuse nor minimize this promise. On the one hand, some twist the promise that “whatever we ask we receive” into prosperity theology, resulting in God being a genie giving us all the wishes we want; riches and health become the entitlement of every believer. But this flies in the face of the whole scope of Scripture and the central idea of following a crucified Messiah. John’s people have just gone through a painful separation. John does not rebuke them for a lack of faith but urges them to continue in faithfulness. Despite the worldwide popularity of prosperity theology, it is false, deceptive and dangerous. Suffering is a central element of discipleship in the New Testament (Rev 2:10; 12:11; Acts 14:22; 2Tim 3:12). For the removal of all pain and suffering we await the final day (Rev 21:4). On the other hand, we must not minimize this promise. God has promised to answer our prayers as we obey him, which will include us asking in accord with his will. God is not a butler at our beck and call, but he does intend to do great work for the good of people and the advance of his kingdom through us and through our prayers. We should take courage from this and pray in confidence that he hears us.
The Necessity of Discernment and the Spirit of Anti-Christ (4:1–6)
This section has significant parallels to 2:18–27. After discussing discerning our own hearts in the previous section, John now turns to discerning the truthfulness of those who claim to speak for God. John’s term of endearment (“beloved”) again marks a transition and probably calls for renewed attention.
4:1–3 The “spirits” here refer to people who would claim the Holy Spirit has prompted their speech. Discernment is necessary because there are “many false prophets;” in other words, not everyone who claims to speak from God really does. Christians are not expected to take such claims at face value. We are not to be naïve and must, rather, test anyone who speaks to see if what they say squares with what we already know God has said in Scripture. Here John says we can “know the Spirit of God,” being able to recognize that a certain message is in line with and prompted by the Holy Spirit by noticing whether or not the one speaking affirms the incarnation of Jesus, the Messiah. If someone does not affirm the full truth of who Jesus is, this person is not from God. Indeed, this person, rather than being animated by the Holy Spirit, is animated by the spirit of antichrist.
One very important implication of this passage is that it is not enough for a teacher to be sincere—contrary to what many think today. Doctrine does matter. If someone denies that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, they are not a part of God’s people and they ought not be accepted as a Christian teacher.
4:4 After mentioning the dire reality of false prophets posing as Christian teachers, another term of endearment (“little children”) marks a move to comfort and encouragement. These children are connected to God (unlike these false teachers), and as a result, they have overcome the deceptive world which seeks to harm them. Christians overcome this world not due to their own strength but because the God in us is greater than the one who leads this world against his rightful rule.
4:5 These false teachers are “from the world,” belonging to the realm of rebellion against God (see comment on 2:15–17). As a result, others who are against God willingly receive their message. Here, John warns against considering the size of one’s following as a measure of truth. Just because many follow a certain teacher does not mean they are right. The “world” will flock to supposed Christian teachers who tell them what they want to hear (2Tim 4:3–4). Error may gain a crowd while truth walks alone, but truth will be determined by its adherence to God not by the size of its following.
4:6 In contrast, Christians belong to God and therefore listen to him. This provides another test for discerning between “the Spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error.” Those who truly know God listen “to us”—the apostolic witness which we now have in the Scriptures. The test of truth is adherence to the written word of God. No individual leader can perversely appropriate this verse to claim that any who do not listen to him do not know God.
Love which Reveals God (4:7–12)
Having discussed the need for vigilance against false teaching, John now reminds them of the need for love. Too easily love can be forgotten in a zeal to defend against error. John never allows his hearers to forget that the “Spirit of truth” (cf. 1Jn 4:6) is always connected to love. In this paragraph John roots the call to love in the character of God (4:7–8), points to the cross as the supreme example of love (4:9–10), and then applies the reality of divine love to their situation (4:9–10).
4:7–8 The “beloved” should love because love originates in God and is evidence of being born of God and knowing God. Love is essential to the nature of God, so one cannot be a child of God without taking on this family resemblance. Christians naturally love others just as babies naturally cry. Love is the distinguishing mark of Christians, which is why it is a terrible tragedy when the Church presents a different face to the world.
John is not saying only Christians can be kind. By the same token saying, “whoever loves has been born of God” does not mean that anyone who does a kind deed truly knows God regardless of whether or not they believe in Jesus. That claim would directly contradict the previous section. The love mentioned here is not mere niceness or kind deeds, but a distinctly Christian, self-sacrificial love (as described throughout this letter).
The fact that “God is love” is a marvelous truth which is also often misconstrued. It does not mean that anything we might call love is approved by God. Love here is defined. It also does not reduce God to an emotion any more than the statement “God is light” in 1 John 1:5 reduces God to particles. This statement shows us that love is a fundamental aspect of God’s nature. All that he does is ultimately loving. God does have wrath, but he is love.
4:9–10 John makes it clear that by “love” he does not mean a vaguely positive sentiment by defining love by the work of Christ. God’s love was “made manifest” by sending “his Son” that we might live and by the death of Jesus that we might have the “propitiation for our sins.” “Propitiation” refers to a sacrifice which turns away wrath. We deserved the wrath of God because of our rebellion against him. In order to be “both just and the justifier,” God put forward his own Son as our propitiation, taking the punishment that we deserve so that we might go free (Rom 3:25–26). This is love, sacrificing one’s self for the ultimate good of another. Christian love is not, then, excusing sin or doing whatever another person wants, but Christian love is fundamentally cross-shaped, doing for another what most helps them as God would see it.
4:11 John’s second use of “beloved” in the same paragraph marks his move to application. If we have experienced this amazing love, such that an all-holy God who does not need us nevertheless, for our good, sent his only Son to die in our place, then we cannot help but love others who have also received this love. Here we find the root theme of John’s epistle: anyone who does not love other believers must not know God.
4:12 How does this verse fit in John’s argument? Why does John now refer to seeing God? That no one has seen God in his fullness is a biblical truism (Exod 33:20; 1Tim 1:17). Even though a watching world cannot physically see God, they can recognize the reality of God when they see his love perfected in us as we love one another. A local church which vigorously and diligently cares for and meets the needs of one another is the strongest demonstration of the truth of the gospel. Since this is so, we must labor for faithful loving communities of faith if we want to see the gospel advance. Local church health is not something we can wait to deal with later; it is foundational to Christian witness and health.
Abiding in God and Perfected Love (4:13–21)
This section opens with three evidences that the believer abides in God and God in the believer (1Jn 4:13–16). 1 John 4:17–21 elaborates on love, the last evidence, picking back up the idea of “perfected” love from 4:12.
4:13 John’s first evidence that we are truly converted (abiding in God and he in us) is that we have his Spirit. One might reasonably ask, then, “How do we know he has given us his Spirit?” The answer is not explicitly stated here. The wording of this verse, however, is very similar to 1 John 3:24, where the Spirit abiding in us is linked to obedience to God’s commands, specifically the command to love. The previous section has just expounded the call to love. This sort of love is evidence that God’s Spirit is at work within us, and this work of the Spirit is then evidence that we are in God.
4:14–15 The second evidence, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, is buttressed by another reminder of the authoritative witness to and explication of this truth. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God includes affirming that he was sent by the Father to be the Savior of the world. Thus, true believers affirm the full deity of Jesus as well as his humanity and status as Savior.
4:16 The third evidence is “abiding in love.” This act involves loving fellow believers as John has mentioned several times in the letter. The first part of the verse serves as the basis for this truth. Since we know and believe that God loves us and that love is essential to his character, anyone who truly knows him must also love. The first part of the verse is a striking and significant statement: it is essential to Christian discipleship that we “come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” Believing this amazing truth is what will empower us to love others.
4:17–18 This section and the following further expound the importance of believers loving one another. “By this” refers to the love for one another just described in the previous verse indicating that God’s love is brought to completion as his people love one another. This love also gives us confidence as we expect the final day of judgment “because as he is so also are we in this world.” John’s point is that just as Jesus is God’s Son, so also we in this world are the children of God. In 1 John 3:1, when discussing a similar theme, John pointed to this reality of our adoption as evidence of the amazing nature of God’s love. The same is in view here as the basis for confidence in judgment, since the holy judge is also our loving Father. Knowing we are loved in this way drives out fear. John does not mean that love and fear cannot co-exist. The Bible often holds them together, calling us to both love and fear God (e.g., Deut 6:1–5). John refers to a fear of rejection. If you are sure of someone’s love, then you will not fear that they will reject you. This is our situation with God.
4:19–21 In the midst of this call to love, John makes clear that this kind of love begins with God, not us. Thus, such love is not meritorious but is simply the proper response to the deep love of God shown in Christ. You cannot, therefore, truly claim to love God if you do not love fellow believers. John has been making this point throughout the letter, and once more, by “love” he does not mean nice feelings but tangible, even sacrificial, care. Thus, if you do not demonstrate care for the people you see, it is impossible that you will love God whom you cannot see. The way to love God is to care for his people. This is a significant statement about the church. John allows no space for a Christianity withdrawn to itself. If you are a follower of Christ, then you must gather with, care for, and support other believers.
Faith in Jesus Overcomes the World (5:1–5)
5:1 John continues to discuss the marks of true believers including love and proper belief about Jesus. In this section he adds the mark of obedience, which he has discussed previously. John also now specifically refers to faith. John refers to belief in Jesus as the Messiah, which continues to fill-out the confession of Jesus in 1 John 4:15. In the previous paragraph, true believers were described as “abiding in God;” here they are those “born of God.”
5:2 Faith in Jesus as Messiah leads to being born of God, and one born of God will naturally love others born of God. You show that you love the children of God by loving God and obeying God. Thus, faith, love, and obedience are all inseparably bound together. These are not isolated items on a checklist but the collective contour of Christian living.
5:3–5 God’s commandments are not burdensome (Matt 11:28–30). They may be difficult, and they will certainly cut across the selfish grain of our flesh. But they lead to freedom and life, and, thus, are not burdensome. This freedom and life John refers to as “overcoming the world.” Those who are born of God achieve this victory by faith. This does not mean the victors no longer suffer or get everything they want. Rather, remaining faithful to God despite the allures of the world is itself the victory (cf. 1Jn 2:15–17). And the faith that enables this victory is not a vague belief in belief or even a certainty that all will be well. Rather, the object of the faith is crucial (“except the one who believes . . . ”). Victorious faith is faith that Jesus is all he says he is (cf. 4:15).
Testimony to the Person of Christ (5:6–12)
5:6–8 Having just affirmed the necessity of faith in Jesus and his true identity, John turns to testimonies which support this belief (the Greek words for “testify and “testimony,” which share the same root, occur ten times in this section). There are three witnesses (John may be alluding to the Old Testament requirement of two or three witnesses, Deut 19:15): The water, the blood, and the Spirit. There is some debate on what John means by “water” and “blood,” but most agree that he refers to Jesus’s baptism and death, thus summarizing the earthly ministry of Jesus by reference to the public beginning and end of it. The divine voice and the baptism, the signs at the crucifixion, as well as the subsequent resurrection, and all of Jesus’s earthly ministry testify mightily of the reality that Jesus is fully God and fully man.
The Holy Spirit also testifies, and this clinches the matter since the Spirit is the truth. How the Spirit testifies is not mentioned here, but John in his gospel points to the Spirit’s affirmation in Jesus’s ministry including his baptism (John 1:32–34) and in the Scriptures as he brought back to mind for the New Testament authors all that Jesus taught them (John 14:26). Elsewhere in the New Testament we see that the Spirit testifies to the truth of Jesus as the word is proclaimed (1Cor 2:9–16), and the Spirit confirms the veracity of gospel truths internally to believers (Rom 8:16).
5:9–12 Having established the witnesses, John turns once again to a call for faith. He argues from lesser to greater—if we believe the testimony of humans based on three witnesses, we ought all the more receive the testimony of God through his Spirit. John began this letter with affirmation of the authority of this message. Now he begins to close the letter by stating clearly that the assertion of Jesus’s full divinity and full humanity is the testimony of God himself. Thus, despite what the false teachers say, no one can deny these truths and still belong to God. To deny these truths is to call God a liar since God is the one who has told us these things. Once more we see that any who deny the full deity of Jesus cannot worship the same God as Christians since they call God a liar. And to reject the testimony of God is to miss life. To believe this testimony is to “have” the Son of God and thus to have life.
Summary and Conclusion: Assurance (5:13–21)
John’s concluding section restates his purpose and summarizes key points of the letter. As a good pastor, he seeks to secure the congregation in gospel truths (note the repetition of “we know,” 1Jn 5:18–20).
5:13–15 He gives assurance to those who “believe in the name of the Son of God” as a way of referring to the orthodox belief in Jesus which he has been describing throughout the letter. Assurance is only for those who believe the truth about Jesus. Such assurance enables persevering prayer. If we know we belong to God, then we know he will pay attention to our prayers. And since he pays attention to our prayers, he will answer them. This is the same point made in 1 John 3:21–22, so once more the promise is not to get whatever we want even if it is contrary to God’s will. Rather this is a call to bold praying, a reminder that assurance is not just for ourselves but is intended to energize us for service such as boldly praying for the advance of God’s kingdom, for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
5:16–18 We should pray for fellow Christians who stray into sin. Since we know that those who are born of God do not make sin their lifestyle, we pray for the repentance and restoration of erring believers. But John does not say we should pray for those who commit sin leading to death.
What is the sin leading to death?
Various ideas have been proposed, but we should be governed by the context of this letter. The letter has been about characteristics of those who have life: obeying God’s commands and pursuing holiness, loving other believers, and believing in Jesus as the Son of God come in the flesh. The only other mention of death in the letter is in 1 John 3:14 where John says that those who do not love fellow Christians abide in death. Thus, the sin that leads to death is turning away from God’s commands, God’s people, and orthodox belief in God’s son as the false teachers have (2:19). This is not a sin that happens accidentally or unbeknownst to a person. The sin leading to death is a sin which would occur gradually as a heart is hardened, and thus John encourages the people to pray for one another that they not go down this road. Indeed, we should pray, believing God will answer and “give him life.”
Note that John never tells us we cannot pray here. He simply says he does not tell us to pray. In a letter where he has been very direct and blunt, John now uses tentative language. The point is that people can reach a point of no return, and in that case we are given permission to cease praying. God told Jeremiah to quit praying for Israel (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11), and Jesus told the disciples there could come a point in their ministry when they should shake the dust off their feet and move on (Matt 10:14). When this point comes is difficult to discern, so John does not forbid prayer but simply informs us that there can come a time when we are permitted to cease praying without guilt.
5:19 Although some turn away, John bolsters his audience by reminding them that they are of God, even while the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. We see evil running amok in the world, but we ought not be surprised. For now, the evil one has the world in his power. But by faith we have overcome the world and there is coming a day (1Jn 3:1–2) when Jesus will set things straight. So, this assurance should help us to hold fast.
5:20–21 John closes with another note of assurance, grounding his beloved readers in the identity of Jesus. He has come in his incarnation and full humanity, and he has given us understanding so that we may know him. And the one we know is the “true God and eternal life.” Knowing this, they can resist idols and stand fast in joy (1Jn 1:4) and hope (3:2).
Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John (Nashville: B&H, 2001). Solid and helpful. Akin gives attention to linguistic and structural issues and often provides the best, most concise listing of different interpretations of a passage.
I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). Solid exegesis naturally interwoven with insightful reflection and application makes this a must-read.
Paul A. Rainbow, Johannine Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014). This is the most helpful survey of the theology of all the books attributed to John (including Revelation). Arranged by topic, Rainbow is helpful particularly for understanding how John deals with key concepts, such as the “world.”
Bruce Schuchard, 1–3 John (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012). Schuchard is quite meaty with a detailed discussion of the Greek text and significant theological reflection. He also gives attention to linguistic and structural issues.
John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988). This work is a classic because he packs so much excellent commentary into a brief space while remaining pastoral and homiletical.
Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008). This is the best all-around commentary on these letters. Yarbrough interacts with the Greek text, but you can follow the argument and derive much help from this book even if you do not know Greek.
Endnotes & Permissions
1. Robert Yarbrough, 1–3 John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 12. See his thorough discussion (12–13).
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright © 2000; 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 John 1
The Word of Life
1:1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our1 joy may be complete.
Walking in the Light
5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.