Recommended Reading: The First Epistle of John Chapter 1
In our series a Fresh Look at the Bible, we have arrived at the sixty second book of the Bible. This letter, just five chapters long, is entitled the First Epistle of John. An epistle is simply a letter, which is written in a formal way. This letter, however, has no greeting or introduction as such but launches immediately into spiritual teaching.
We will notice that it has a very similar beginning as the gospel of John. In fact, there are many phrases and passages in this letter which are very similar in form to those expressed in the gospel. In fact, as we read through this letter, we will notice very many contrasting figures of speech, such as truth versus lies, love versus hate, light versus darkness, life versus death, and if we read through the gospel of John, we will find exactly the same expressions, the same thoughts. Likewise, the themes and style of writing is strikingly similar.
These are some of the many reasons that right from the beginning, it was always accepted that this letter was written by the Apostle John, despite not having his name on it. When he wrote the letter, no doubt everyone knew it was from John, because the disciple delivering it would have said so. Irenaeus, a famous early Christian who was born in AD 130, only about 30 years after the Apostle John’s death, who heard a man Polycarp preach who in turn heard the Apostle John preach, has also put it on record that this letter was authored by the Apostle John. As does Eusebius author of ecclesiastical history about AD 300.
John the Apostle was one of Jesus’ disciples, and had a brother called James. These two were in a business with their father, called Zebedee, and Salome their mother, and the family was reasonably well off, and owned a couple of boats, and were fishermen by trade, and lived in village called Bethsaida, on the shores of lake Galilee. They were mending their nets with their father one day, when Jesus walked by and said to them, Follow me. And they immediately left the ship and their father and followed him. They had heard and seen enough of this man, to know he spoke the truth. They were men who kept their minds uncluttered from the many distractions of the world and liked to keep things black and white. Straightforward. This sometimes got them into trouble. For example, when the townsfolk of Samaria were not welcoming to Jesus, they became angry and asked for fire to come down from heaven to destroy the unbelievers. They were strongly reproved. Jesus called them the sons of Thunder, Boanerges. Full of zeal, enthusiasm, and passion for the truth of God’s word. They were eyewitnesses of the majesty of Jesus Christ, witnessing so much of his preaching, his traumatic death, but then full of joy, his miraculous resurrection.
They met him when he was made alive again, they ate with him, shared precious time with him, saw that he was very real and very much alive, before he then ascended to heaven. Together they testified to his marvellous work and life, his death and resurrection, and hope for all sinners as they preached the gospel and the forgiveness of sins. James, John’s brother however, was taken by the evil king Herod and was slain by the sword. John had much to sorrow about as he saw also Peter arrested and thrown into prison. John who was very much beloved by Jesus then penned the gospel, a record of his own witness and testimony, under Divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. His deep spirituality produced a gospel which was not just a historical narrative but sought to present the essence of the character of the Lord Jesus, and the core of his teaching. This is very much reflected also in his first letter.
As the years passed, the Apostle Paul was commissioned to preach to the Gentiles, and he along with others established many new churches or ecclesias as they were known then, and are more accurately called today, all over Roman Asia. One particular ecclesia established at Ephesus, located on the west coast of Turkey as it is called today, grew quite strong, and developed quickly. Paul was there for three and a half years. However, he fulfilled a promise to return there, and when there he made clear of some of the things that he had observed. False doctrine was creeping upon all the ecclesias. He gathered all the elders together and told them: Acts 20:29: "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch..." Because of these dangerous times which threatened the flock, it seemed that help was requested from Jerusalem, which is why John is found in his later years not in Jerusalem, but in this very region.
In AD96, or thereabouts, he was banished from Ephesus to a remote island off the coast of Ephesus called Patmos, according to the historian Tertullian where he received the vision of the Revelation. Thus, the three letters he wrote, are set in the era just before the fall and sack of Jerusalem by the Romans, the eviction of the Jews from Judea, and when the purity of the gospel message is being harmed by newly arisen false preachers. These three letters were the Apostle John’s divinely inspired response to this threat. These letters were written then some 35 odd years after Jesus’ ascension, and after the work of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles had begun. In that space of time, many different false teachings had come about. But one which had really taken hold, was where pagan ideas became mixed with the truth.
There were a group of influential teachers who claimed to be followers of Christ but who were not. Some of them had once upon a time been believers, been in fellowship with the ecclesia, as we can discover in 1 John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us." They were forefathers of a heresy that exploded into full bloom during the second and third centuries, they believed that everything that was physical was flawed and evil, including the human body. They taught that God on the other hand is completely spiritual and good. The problem with this simplistic view was that those who accepted its conclusions were forced to conclude that Jesus only appeared to be physical, but was really spiritual, thus he was just an illusion, not a real person. The argument then followed that therefore the crucifixion played no role in salvation since the Son of God was not really killed. Instead, they claimed that salvation comes from a secret knowledge how to transcend the human body.
This secret knowledge apparently expressed in rituals and words, gave the religious movement its name Gnosticism from 'gnosis' (γνῶσις) the Greek word for knowledge. John tackles this false teaching, this heresy head on. His black and white approach as it were is able to dismantle the simplistic approach of the pagan influenced apostasy. 1 John 1:1-4: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full."
He begins the gospel record in a similar way John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." This word is the Greek word 'logos' (λόγος) which means idea or concept, and denotes the will or purpose of God was with him of course from the very beginning. In the same gospel, John explains how this word became flesh, that is the purpose or will of God instead of just a concept but became fulfilled in a person, was expressed in action, in the person of his son who obeyed that Word, the will of his Father in every way.
Here John in his letter states in no uncertain terms that he saw this occur with his own eyes, he was an eyewitness. The life was manifested, and we have seen it, and what they witnessed he was now going to declare to them so that there could be no mistake, that their joy could be full, no need to worry about these new false ideas. Our hands have handled, the Word of Life, Jesus Christ, the Gospel in action certainly not spirit then, if they handled, touched him – flesh and blood.
Then John explains in 1 John 1:5: "In God is no darkness, no impurity, no sin, if we are in darkness, if we are ignorant and sinful, it proves that we cannot have any fellowship with him." The difference is in how we walk he says, a metaphor for how we live. If we live in the Light of the Word of God, then it is possible to have fellowship with God, even if we possess sinful physical bodies which contain a sinful nature. It is not secret knowledge which saves us, but John explains here in 1 John 1:7: "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin." Secret knowledge with rituals and a form of words, is not light. So many different religions rely on rituals, or a form of words to somehow transform a person from being an infidel to being saved. As if wearing certain clothes, or reciting various verses, or attending certain religious holy days makes you as a person any different to anybody else. How is that light? All that is, is confusion, there is no logic in it at all. Why should one ritual say that of the Buddhists make pure, or one of the Catholics make pure, or of Islam, and soon. They can’t all be right. Is it the blind faith of the follower of that particular religion that confers that feeling of purity? If it is blind, then it is not light. Light as John shows is something that can be clearly seen, understood, and demonstrated. It is in allowing the Word of God transform us, as it is was fulfilled in Christ Jesus. It is in the walk, the way of life. It is this which creates unity. It is not rituals which make us pure. It is as John explains, and refuting the apostate Gnostic influenced false teachers, it is forgiveness of sins which cleanses and purifies us from sin and allows us to be in unity with God.
Moreover, it is the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanseth us from all sin. Yes, all sin. No one can say I am not worthy; I am too bad. Additionally, John makes the point, the blood of Jesus Christ makes us free from sin. Jesus was not a spirit. A spirit does not have flesh and blood. It was his shed blood which enabled others to be forgiven. Why? Because he did not sin. His blood then was pure of sin. It did not energise his body to commit sin. He would not allow it. He died an innocent man; he had never offended God. It was because of sin, that the sentence of death was placed upon all men. It would be only through the death of an innocent man, that the original transgression of Adam and Eve, and indeed all sins of men could be undone, remitted, forgiven, covered over. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. All of which would be impossible, if Jesus was never a person, made of flesh and blood and touched with the same infirmities as we are, or indeed if Jesus was God, which most so-called Christians seem to believe today.
John continues, answering those who seem to think that though their physical body is sinful that somehow, they can be free from sin through secret knowledge. There is only one way to be made free from sin. He says in 1 John 1:8: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." So much for the alternative views that people were putting across. But then he adds: to explain what it is we must do to be forgiven: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. It is the confession, the acknowledgement, the ready admission that we have transgressed, cut across God’s will, his word, his commands.
This admission comes from an understanding, able to recognise when we do wrong. If we can’t see it, then we are blind, our sins remain in us. The Word of God is designed to enlighten our minds to exercise our conscience, and see when we have failed, and in need of forgiveness. When we sin, it is not others that we have offended primarily, but first and foremost always it is God we have offended. So, John teaches in 1 John 2:1-2: "And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world." It is true that the Bible uses words that we do not use every day, but they are accurately describing what the Apostle is teaching. He is describing the Lord Jesus as an advocate.
This is an important role, and also proves that Jesus was made of the same stuff as us, flesh and blood, and was physical, in that the definition of an advocate, is a legal term for someone who pleads for the cause of another, he defends and supports, normally someone who has been accused. Not only that but an advocate is so appointed because of his experience and knowledge of the assistance required. Thus, he is a specialist. Jesus is the best advocate for us, pleading for us, interceding, because he has experience, as he shared our nature, temptations and feelings, and knows how the human mind can be distracted and weakened so easily, thus he is the best representative for us. If he was merely spirit, or if he was God himself, how could he possibly be an advocate on our behalf representing us to God? It is not possible to intercede on your own behalf or be an advocate for yourself.
Moreover, John described Jesus as a propitiation for our sins. Another word we don’t use every day. But it means to cover over, to conciliate the favour of an offended person. It is actually the same word as mercy seat, that is the lid to the ark of the covenant. The reason for that is because not only did the lid of the ark of the covenant cover over the law or covenant which was contained in the ark, but once a year the blood of an innocent animal was placed on it, to make an atonement for the people, to reconcile them to God, as a type and shadow of the great sacrifice Jesus would make as a covering and atonement.
Again if we say that Jesus was not the son of God, or if we say that his sacrifice or crucifixion does not count, then is there no forgiveness of sins, no covering over of the condemnation of the law ….There is not a magic or mystical process that takes place through rituals we can see why John is speaking so plainly, instead a way has been provided to be at one with God again through his Son, and full recognition of our own failures has to be made, we do have to do something John goes onto explain, How to walk in the light, it doesn’t just happen by itself. The preachers with the new ideas, trying to amalgamate the Greek ideas of Gnosticism, the secret knowledge, are answered by John, as he talks about the knowledge in 1 John 2:3-4: "And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that says, I know him, but doesn’t keep his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him." Strong words from this son of thunder, but it is true. To claim to know God, but not experience his power through the Word by keeping his commandments, means that in truth you don’t know him at all.
So, no amount of knowledge will do anything. Claiming to believe something, but doing the opposite, exposes the hypocrisy, and that fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Wasting your time. So, actions, in the end reveal the character in 1 John 2:9: "He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him." John shows that there is indeed a clear delineation between good and evil, but he shows that it is not in the way that these apostate teachers say. Instead, each individual has the choice to stop being evil, they can themselves take action to change their lives.
He shows the system of the world versus the system of God in 1 John 2:15-16: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world." The worldly way of thinking is all about self. As in the three aspects John lists, and this list is interesting, as it sums up neatly the way in which we can be led astray by our own thoughts, and is reflected actually, as some of us might be aware in the very temptations that Jesus himself went through in the wilderness. The lust of the flesh, giving in to our base desires prompted by feelings in our body, whether hunger, in greediness, or impure thoughts, lusts of the eyes, whereby come thoughts of covetousness, seeing something and wanting it for ourselves, and the pride of life, how we want to be viewed by other people, craving recognition, or respect and so on. The battle is within each one, not some supernatural forces of darkness, that the Dualists and Gnostics believed.
As the Lord Jesus experienced these desires he never gave in to the lusts, but overcame them, John congratulates his readers, he knows that many of them are trying really hard to follow the right path, as in 1 John 2:13-14: "I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father.I have written unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I have, and ye have overcome the wicked one." He is writing to all, everyone no matter how old, or inexperienced is capable of making the right choice. Being a novice is no excuse, we are all responsible for steering our own thoughts, by addressing different levels of experience, John is delivering a very personal message.
He makes a contrast. He speaks several times about antichrist, like in 1 John 2:22: "Who is a liar but he that denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denies the Father and the Son." Antichrist does not mean against Christ, but it means in place of Christ. These are those who are preaching another gospel, sowing confusion, setting themselves up to get a following maybe, what is interesting that the words vicar of Christ, also literally means in place of Christ, and is a title that the pope head of the Roman catholic church has given to himself. Indeed, many so called Christians believe that by going to the vicar or the priest and confessing faults, they can be forgiven.
This was a system a false religious system that John was warning his readers about, like 1 John 2:18: "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time." This echoes the words of Jesus as he prophesied the fall of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:24: "For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." The last time John is speaking of is the last moments of the Jewish commonwealth, when then the times of the Gentiles would commence after AD70, great changes would take place, they had to be on their guard against these false christs.
John encourages those who know the truth, who make the Word of God only as their source of knowledge and try to keep it, he encourages them by reminding them that the time will come when Christ Jesus returns, and when he returns will fulfil his promise of eternal life (Matthew 24:25 & 28): "And this is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life. So, stay with him, do not be seduced or deluded or discouraged...And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming." He explains that purity can be attained. Despite what other people might think. If the promise has been made that we will be forgiven our sins if we forgive them, then forgiven sins, are sins that are no more. This is why John says in chapter 3 (1 John 3:3 & 6): "And every man that hath this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure...Whosoever abides in him sins not:" Again; in 1 John 3:9: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remains in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." In 1 John 5:18: "We know that whosoever is born of God sins not; but he that is begotten of God keeps himself, and that wicked one does not touch him." In the same letter John emphasises that any who say they do not sin are a liar. So how is it that those who are born of God do not sin? The spiritual man or woman which grows within us, is because of the influence of the Word of God, it is Christ Jesus who lives in us.
That is the cause of righteousness and not sin. That new man cannot sin. It is the old man the devilish thinking that sins (1 John 3:8): "He that commits sin is of the devil; for the devil sins from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil." He explains the devilish works as coming from giving into those three lusts, and one of which he highlights as hate (1 John 3:15): "Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him." It is true John is using black and white language. Light, darkness, love and hate, but in this language of opposites, the truth is obvious. The contrast stark. The choice is clear. How we make our choice is how we allow our conscience to be affected, when does knowledge translate into action? He gives the example in 1 John 3:17: "But whoso hath this world's good, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" If your conscience is tweaked to do something. Then do something. If we don’t, then we are denying the power of the Word, and he adds in 1 John 3:20: "For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things."
In the fourth chapter, John returns to challenging the apostasy, and urges his dear readers to not be taken in but test the ideas and words of preachers against what the Word says in 1 John 4:1: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." Specifically, he condemns those who deny the humanity of Jesus (1 John 4:2-3): "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world." Indeed, it was, and as John was shown a decade or two later, when he was on the isle of Patmos, this twisted view of Jesus Christ was to become central to the teaching of the false church. As he was shown in the visions of the revelation.
The focus of the believer then, is to stay strong by developing the knowledge of the Word, by practicing it. In this John speaks of love: the 'agape' (ἀγάπη). The opposite to the deadly grip of hate, which caused Cain to slay his brother. Love comes from God. Wanting to give up something for someone else is not a human trait. It is a godly trait. If don’t do this, then you don’t know God. 8 He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Seen through the fact that God was prepared to give his own blood – his own son for our sins, if we would then know God, then we should love as he does, as Christ does. Although we may not see God, yet we can know him by being like him (1 John 4:12): "No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us." And John is explicit: God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. How can we claim to be followers of Christ and claim to love God we can’t see, but do not love a brother who we can see? Asks the Apostle. There is nothing difficult about this. It is easy to understand.
So, why is it that men want to cloud and confuse and alter and twist and reshape what God has shown? Nothing less than they do not know God, but they themselves desire more than anything to have a following to feel important, to think they are better in some way then everybody else: common human lusts which are out of control is at the core of all false religion. How the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican churches have in times past ruled – through obscurity and fear, but as says John (1 John 4:18): "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love." There is no need to fear if we allow the truth of the word of God to flourish. Trust God, and let the outcome be of his making.
There is nothing to fear we will not be losing out, or disadvantaged, instead he says in 1 John 5:4: "For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." Jesus the Son of God, our advocate overcame, he loved, he has shown the way, John is so clear, and precise, that the antichrists saw fit over the years to try and change his words to better suit their invention of the trinity. For example: 1 John 5:7-8 should read: "For there are three which testify, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood and these three are of one." Additional text was added which was not in the original, John was stating here that Jesus was born of the Spirit, through the Holy Spirit given of the Father, born of the water, through baptism to fulfil all righteousness and of blood, his development from humanity to divinity, victory of the spirit over the flesh.
This is the testimony of an eye witness; John the son of Zebedee, a fisherman, transformed into a divinely inspired apostle. These things he says in 1 John 5:13-14: "I have written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us..." Indeed it is confidence, to know that if we believe in the truth, and act upon that knowledge and love and not hate, and do not ignore bits of the Bible we find unpalatable or may not fully appreciate, then we can be confident we have eternal life. This is an amazing thought. But there are a lot of ifs. Because those lusts John mentioned have a nasty habit of creeping up when we do not even realise it.
The Apostle has emphasised many times the need to be separate, to see that the world and its thinking is in opposition to the thinking of God. It is black and white; it is not difficult. But humans, you and me, we are weak. Yet again, John says we can be confident, that if we believe and ask according to his will, God will hear us. Let us ask for understanding, for our faith to be strengthened, to be more like Jesus, to learn to love, to ask to be delivered from temptation. John concludes (1 John 5:20-21): "And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen." Another Apostle explains that the common form of idolatry is covetousness. It is was and is the root cause of antichrist. Desire to have the power and glory, without the sacrifice and honour without the love and respect that must be given in exchange, that is the human way, the darkness and the hate. It is the last time now. The choice is before us. Love self? Or love God?
Terry Hilsden | 2nd February 2020