If you would have joy and peace in believing, if you would assure your heart before God, if you would have the witness of the Spirit within that you are a child of God and an heir of glory, then take your Bible and turn to John’s first epistle. Read it and study it, for it is the believer’s manual for self-examination; it is the touchstone or standard of a true Christian life and character. Here is unfolded to us the love of the Father; here we review the fruit of that relationship to God as our Father into which His love has brought us; here we are reminded, not so much (as in other epistles) of what we were, but of what we have become. Here the emphasis is almost entirely upon what we are now in Christ, reminding us that in our lives here there is to be the evidence, to ourselves as well as to others, that we are the children of God.
The subject of the epistle
John’s writings relate especially to the family of God. We can trace three related subjects in the New Testament, namely, the kingdom of God, the church of God and the family of God. Matthew and Peter are mainly concerned with the kingdom of God, and Paul in his epistles with the church of God, but John is almost entirely occupied with the family of God.
In the fourth Gospel, which bears his name, John focuses our attention throughout upon the Son of the Father, the Beloved, the Unique, the Only-Begotten. He tell us at the end that his object in writing is that we might have settled convictions concerning Him—that we might believe that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). Thus it is the Son who is there primarily in view.
The epistles of John also focus upon the family of God, but here it is especially the other children, the “many sons” of Hebrews 2:10 that claim his attention. John tells us that they too can be recognized because there is a family likeness. The Father‘s life was manifested in the firstborn from the dead, and because it is this same life which is given to all God’s children there will be in them a conformity to type. It is by this that the children of God are to be distinguished.
In the book of Revelation John is entrusted with an unveiling of the future and ultimate glory of the Son, His royal, heavenly and universal state. The Son is not alone, however, for others are with Him now. They have His Name and the Name of His Father their foreheads, and they are without blemish. Here are unveiled the whole family: the Son, and the “many sons” who are with Him in the glory to which He has brought them. Thus we see that all John’s emphasis in his writings is upon the family the Father, the Son, and the sons.
As we read the epistle, it is helpful to notice when it is that John says ‘God‘ and when he says ‘Father’. He refers to the first Person of the Trinity by both titles, and his choice often has a definite bearing upon the matter being discussed. The title ‘God’ is used to illuminate the nature of the life we have received from Him. It is divine and incorruptible, and its principle characteristics are righteousness and love. Hence he says, “God is light” (righteousness) and “God is love”. The name ‘Father‘, on the other hand, illuminates the relationship we have with Him. It points more particularly to the fellowship with Him into which we have been brought by new birth.
Thus the apostle continually emphasizes the two-fold privilege of the children of God, namely the possession of a new and divine nature, and the enjoyment of a new and heavenly relationship. We are members of God’s family. He is our Father in the deepest, truest sense, so that we enjoy a relationship of profound and far-reaching value and significance. Into it a believer is brought from the moment of new birth, and this relationship is thus the special feature of this dispensation.
The purpose of the epistle
But the supreme object with which the apostle writes is to make clear the distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil (3:10). No man should on any account be deceived on this matter. “The children of God are manifest”, says John. They are made apparent (as the word means); they are readily identifiable; there are signs by which they are to be recognised. And then he proceeds to indicate one of these signs by prefacing his statement with the words, “In this the children of God are manifest” (3:10). It is this matter of the evidences of a true Christian life that is the main burden of John’s epistle, and on several other occasions he introduces such evidences with the words “Hereby we know…”
“Hereby know we that we know him; … that we are in Him; … that we abide in Him, and He in us” (2:3,5 and 4:13).
There are at least four of these marks of a true spiritual life that will engage our attention. They are obedience, righteousness, love, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
(a) Obedience: “Hereby know we … if we keep his commandments … and walk even as he walked” (2:3,5).
(b) Righteousness: “He that doeth righteousness is righteous … In this the children of God are manifest.” (3:7,10).
(c) Love of the brethren : “Hereby shall we know … (if we) love in deed and truth” (3:18,19).
(d) The indwelling Spirit: “Hereby we know … by the Spirit which he gave us” (3:24; 4:13).
We shall study each of these evidences as we come to them. They are the marks by which we can know with certainty to which family we belong—the family of God or the family of the devil—and by which, in some degree at least, we can know this of others also.
The value of the epistle
The importance of these evidences lies in the safeguards with which they provide us. We may recognise four such safeguards, which may be felt to be contributory objects of the epistle.
In the first place, John is concerned above all things that we should be quite sure whether or not we possess eternal life. This is a very important matter, and John therefore emphasizes it again and again, so that we find “the life”, “this life”, “eternal life”, recurring constantly through the letter. Already in the second verse there are three references to “the life” and thereafter its occurrences are many. John is talking about a particular life: not human life, but the life, divine life, and he reminds us by repeated emphasis that we must be sure that we possess it. Many people, when asked “Have you got eternal life?” are unable to answer ‘Yes’ with assurance; but the Lord wants us to be sure, for if we are not possessors of eternal life, we perish (John 3:16).
Then secondly, John’s concern is that, as those who profess to enjoy eternal life, we should exhibit conduct that is in keeping with that profession. The frequent recurrence of the little word ‘if’ particularly in the beginning of this letter, is a reminder of this. The question is, will our conduct stand up to the tests John so faithfully applies? Are we walking in the light given us in the message which he outlines in chapter 1? These are important questions. By them the first epistle of John becomes a precious test of the believer’s conduct.
Once again, Scripture shows, and John reminds us, that the empty world religion of false profession will be headed up one day in the worship of a single man—Antichrist. Not only so, but, as John makes clear, there are many Antichrists already present. The spirit of Antichrist (4:3) is already abroad. This then is John’s third object of concern.
Anything that is against Christ or that leads away from Him; anything that is un-Christ-like; anything that is untrue to the life of Christ indwelling the believer, is surely the spirit of Antichrist. There are many things amongst Christians today that are unchristian—un-Christ-like—and we must recognize, in ourselves as well as in others, what is of Christ, and what is not. Some unkind thought about my brother, some selfish action against my neighbour that is un-Christ-like—that is the spirit of Antichrist already abroad in me. This epistle will help us to recognize such a spirit in us and to overcome it.
Finally, John would warn us against those who would seek to destroy our faith. In his day, late in the first century, some arose who called themselves ‘Gnostics‘ and who denied the divinity of the Lord Jesus. ‘Gnostic‘ means ‘those who know’, and these people professed to have a knowledge superior to that of simple Christians. They said, “We know that Jesus was only a man, only human. We know that ‘Christ’ was the divine Spirit, which indwelt Him at His baptism and left Him on the cross. We know that Jesus was not a real person, but a spirit, an intangible phantom.”
These arguments John disposes of in his opening verses, and then emphatically declares that Christians know too, and know better. By his repeated use (from chapter 2, verse 3 onwards) of the words “We know … we know”, he establishes the firm foundations of our faith in the eyewitness of the apostles, and then goes on to assure his readers, “Ye know.”
Thus we turn with high expectation to this letter, so intimate, so searching, so helpful. John’s writings are among the most helpful in the New Testament. He continued to live and write at the end of the apostolic age, after most of the other apostles had passed to glory, and perhaps twenty years after the death of Paul. Contradictions and inconsistencies in the early church had begun to cause alarm—conditions which have steadily worsened down the ages and which are today widespread among the people of God, so that what he wrote then has direct bearing upon our day and time. Now, as then, it is essential that believers should reproduce in their life and conduct those divinely required evidences by which the children of God are manifest.