(PART THREE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES)
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)
Although John only disclosed the main purpose of his first letter toward its conclusion, it informed all that he wrote. He lived long enough to see the warning Paul gave the elders of the church at Ephesus become a reality and the people led astray by the “twisted things” spoken by “fierce wolves,” who had entered the church and from within its own circle (Acts 20:28–30). He therefore set about refuting errors and restoring the flock, dealing with denials on the one hand and the doubts they caused on the other. His desire for those addressed was that they should become sure that eternal life was theirs. Perhaps he was remembering the restoration of “Doubting Thomas” in the Upper Room, as he alone recorded the event in his Gospel (21:24–29).
Expressing genuine care and affection, John addressed his readers as “little children” and “beloved” (see 1 John 2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) or “children” (2:7, 13, 18; 3:2, 21; 4:1, 7, 11) and warned them against being deceived (2:26; 3:7), which would have such an adverse effect on their fellowship and joy (1:3–4). The Epistle therefore combines the pastoral note (see 2:1, 12–13, 18, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) with the polemical (1:10; 2:4, 22; 3:10, 4:1, 6, 20; 5:10). The true pastor will therefore always be on guard against wolves that threaten the sheep, even at risk to himself (see 10:11–3). Failure to sound a negative note will blur the clarity of understanding and cut the nerve of confidence. Lies corrupt life and living. It is possible to be too positive as well as too negative! But the contents of this letter should always be used to consolidate and not destabilize Christians, which is the main purpose of apostolic Scripture (see 2 Cor. 10:8; 2 Tim. 3:15–16; 2 Pet. 3:15–19).
We will now attempt a survey of how John goes about this ministerial task in what has been described as “a masterpiece of edification.”1 What are the “things” he chose to record as being suitable for his purpose? Put briefly, he employs his principle of “the truth in truth” and reminds “[his] little children” (2:1) of what they already know and of its effects in their lives. The verb “to know” (actually two verbs in the original, as we shall see) is used so frequently by him that it must be deliberate on his part. For him, assurance was bound up with knowing and not just feeling—a salutary note for many evangelicals today. He reminds them of (1) the time in which they are living and its dangers, and (2) the truths that they truly know. In the process of doing this, John draws clear lines of contrast between light and darkness, Christ and antichrist, God and the devil, and the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world. Such differentiation does not have to generate pride and arrogance. It is basic to a humble confidence.
THE TIME: IT IS “THE LAST HOUR”
John’s “last hour” is no different from Paul’s “last days” (2 Tim. 3:1) and Peter’s “last times” (1 Pet. 1:20). For all three apostles, the adjective “last” is more important than the noun because it means “final.” Another preparatory period like the one that preceded the Lord’s first coming will not occur before his reappearing (2:28), which is the “last day.” Then the saints will be conformed to his image (3:2), and all the world will be judged (4:17). This is “the day of the Lord” spoken of repeatedly in the Old Testament.
Now that the Christ has come and is yet to come again, the “antichrist” is active. Indeed, there are many such antichrists—the one and the many connected by the animating spirit of false prophecy (4:3). The preposition “anti” connotes being “in opposition to,” as is the case with the corresponding term “pseudo-Christ” used by Mark (see 13:14, 22, with parallel thoughts in Matthew and Luke). “Pseudo-Christs” must also be “antichrists,” because they impersonate the true Christ, arrogating to themselves the glory that is his alone.
Although the designation “antichrist” is used only by John, he is able to say that his “coming” is something about which his readers “have heard.” In this connection, it must be remembered that Paul wrote about the “man of sin” (2 Thess. 2:1–12) and of “times of difficulty” in the last days (2 Tim. 3:1–9).2 Whether John is referring to one antichrist to come is a moot question and outside the range of our study, but what is clear is that he used the term to describe the false teachers who laid claim to possess a greater knowledge than what was apostolic (2 John 9). They had been in the congregations he was addressing, and though they had left—perhaps they had been challenged and their teaching rejected (see Rev. 2:2)—they had an unsettling effect on the members. Their departure proved that they did not really belong in the first place. Those that are “of us” stay “with us,” says the apostle, which means that they remain in “what they have heard” and so “in the Son and in the Father” (2:24–25). But some could waver. Perhaps this is the background to the reference to praying for a brother whose sin is not one that leads “to death” (5:16–17).
What were the deceivers claiming that was “extra” to apostolic truth? It can be safely said that they claimed greater knowledge and freedom than Christians possessed. I. Howard Marshall wrote helpfully,
It is hard to tell exactly what the false teachers opposed by John positively believed and taught; it is easier to say what features of the orthodox faith they denied, since John directs his attention mainly to these. Further, we should beware of supposing that every attitude which John condemns must necessarily be attributed to the false teachers, or that their teaching formed a coherent, complete system of thought.3
Their outlook has been described as a “kind of incipient Gnosticism” (gnosis being Greek for “knowledge”), a movement that became full-blown in the second century. Two of its features have been classified as dualism and Docetism.
Dualist and Docetic Elements
Cerinthus was an opponent and contemporary of John in Ephesus who drew a strict demarcation between matter and spirit, with the latter alone being of moral significance. The former was regarded as the source and seat of evil, and so what was done in or by the body did not count as being sin or sinful (1:6, 8, 10). A kind of antinomianism resulted with an indifference to commandments (2:4, 7–9; 15–17). Consequently, no real union between the divine and the human was possible, and so Christ’s humanity was a semblance and not a reality. (The term “Docetism” is derived from the Greek verb dokein, which means “to seem.”) Cerinthus advocated that the divine descended on Jesus at his baptism, only to leave him on the eve of his Passion. This is why John asserted that Jesus was the Christ “come in the flesh” and “by water and blood, not by the water only but by the water and the blood” (4:2; 5:6). The fact that John followed these words with a reference to the Spirit’s testimony supports the argument that at the root of this two-headed hydra of error was a claim to direct revelation as contrastingly implied in 2:20, 27 and 4:1. John Stott declared, “No system of teaching which denies either the eternal pre-existence of Jesus or the historical incarnation of the Christ can be accepted as Christian.”4
THE TRUTHS: “THIS IS THE …”
In seeking to convey assurance to his readers, John continues in the same vein as in his prologue. He lays down a number of apostolic certainties of truth and faith, revelation and its reception, which are scattered throughout the letter. They all begin with the expression “this is the” followed by the nouns “message” (1:5; 3:11), “promise” and “commandment” (2:25; 3:23; 4:21), “victory” (5:4), “testimony” (5: 9, 11), and “confidence” (5:14). This is essential to his pastoral method. We will consider each in the order in which it occurs in the Epistle.
This is about God revealed in Jesus Christ. It revolves around the twin truths that God is light (1:5) and also love (4:16). Light refers to God’s holiness and righteousness (2:29), but it may also refer to his self-revealing nature. Love is essentially an outpouring of oneself for the benefit of others. It is seen supremely in his giving of his Son for the salvation of sinners, necessitating a propitiating sacrifice on his part (4:10). Basic to everything is that he is life, living, and life-giving (5:20).
The Promise and the Commandment
These are the forms in which the divine message is communicated. They stand for law and gospel. The order in which John mentions them is due to the fact that he is addressing those whose obedience is called for, because they have received God’s love and believed the promise of eternal life (3:1ff.). The life they are to live is one of increasing likeness to Jesus Christ by “walking as he walked,” which is keeping his commandments and turning away from sin (2:1–6; 3:1–3).
This triumph is defined as “our faith,” which is believing that “Jesus is the Son of God” as proclaimed by the apostles. It rejects all contrary ideas on the matter and those who present them as “the world,” which is animated by “the spirit of error” (4:4–6). Such decisiveness is traceable to their having been anointed (2:27), which is the same as having been born again (5:4). It is the work of the Holy Spirit alone (3:24).
The triumphant confession is not only based on the apostles’ declaration as true, but it is also the effect of the testimony of the Spirit of God confirming it to the believer. External attestation to Jesus as God’s Christ has been echoed by the internal witness of the Spirit in everyone who believes their record (5:10). We can say an inward “amen” to what the apostles said and wrote, and do so with the same post-Pentecostal certainty as they did.
This is an effect of the witness described above. The term means “freedom of speech” or “boldness” and is used elsewhere in the New Testament. If there is one word that sums up what is distinctive about the new covenant era, then this is it (see 2 Cor. 4:6). It is used for preaching (or witness bearing) as in the case of John himself, who along with Peter testified before the Sanhedrin shortly after Jesus had been crucified (see Acts 4:13). It also characterizes prayer (3:21; 5:14), being undergirded by the certainty that God will not only hear but also answer requests in accord with his will. Climactically, it is an anticipation of being welcomed by the returning Lord into his glorious presence (2:28).
The expression “this is the” admits of no qualification or improvement—something either is or it isn’t (and there is no such word as isser!). This definiteness rings loud and clear in our society, which is permeated by relativism and pluralism and, sad to say, is in much of the visible church as well. The assertions it introduces are all brought to a climax in the affirmation “This [or he] is the true God and eternal life” and the exhortation that follows it—namely, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:20–21), whether material images or mental ideas. Such decisiveness, positive and negative, is part and parcel of the assurance of eternal life.
Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
- G. G. Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal (London: Hodder and Stoughton, n.d.), 59.
- This is the ESV rendering of 2 Timothy 3:1; surely a stronger term than “difficulty” is called for in the light of the context.
- I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 15.
- John R. W. Stott, The Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 57.