1 John — A Handbook for Believers on the Christian Life

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The first epistle of John is written more in the style of a handbook or treatise than a letter. The author does not introduce himself or address his audience, as is customary in most correspondence of this time. Nor does this book contain a greeting at the beginning or end. Instead, it starts with a short preface and concludes with an abrupt, seemingly unrelated statement—almost as if the apostle meant to begin a new chapter, but was interrupted.

According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, “The epistle has been traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle. The author’s name, however, does not occur in the letter.” Zane C. Hodges, contributing writer for the Bible Knowledge Commentary, adds that early church fathers, including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, attributed the book to John, and there does not seem to be any reason to question his authorship. John’s writing style and motifs are similar to what we find in his gospel—particularly the emphasis on love, the atonement and Jesus as the “Light of the World” and the Logos, or “Word of God.” As for the timing of its writing, most scholars believe it was written sometime before the fall of Jerusalem—most likely between 60 and 70 A.D.

1 John Chapter 1
John started out by telling his audience he was relaying to them what he and the other apostles had heard, seen and handled “concerning the Word of life,” Jesus, who was manifested to them during his three-and-a-half years of ministry among them (1 Jn. 1:1-3a). Why was he sharing this? So that the recipients of John’s message might have the full satisfaction and joy of experiencing fellowship with both the Father and His Son, as John and his compatriots had (vv. 3-4).

John informs us that “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (5). Today, we might say there are no grey areas with God. To say that we have fellowship with the source of all light, when we live and walk in darkness is a complete contradiction (6). However, “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin” (7).

In contrast, John says anyone who thinks he/she is free from sin is deceiving him/herself and has no truth in his/her heart (8). Even the Jewish leaders, when confronted by Jesus, realized that they were not without guilt of some kind (See John 8:3-9). Anyone who insists they are good is not agreeing with God, who said “There is none righteous” (Romans 3:10, quoting Psalms 14:1-3 & 53:1-3), and added that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). In 1 John 1:10, the apostle came right out and said that such a person is calling God a liar and has rejected His word.

However, if we agree with God and “confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). Not only does He expunge the record of guilt against us, but God cleans up our hearts and removes our propensity toward sin.

1 John Chapter 2
Continuing his thought from the previous chapter, John reassured his audience that if we do sin, “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” who took on the sins of all the world and paid the price for them on our behalf (1 Jn. 2:1-2). Whoever put the chapter break in before these verses placed it in a very awkward position, as the apostle does not change his train of thought until after verse two.

Wanting his audience to be able to tell between those who shared their love of God and counterfeits, John suggested some tests to discern the good from the bad, the genuine from fake Christians:

  1. Those who know Christ intimately do what He says (vv. 3-5). This agrees with what Jesus said in John 14:15, 21 & 23.
  2. Those who say they abide/live in Christ do as He did (1 Jn. 2:6).
  3. Those who identify with the Light of the world love others (vv. 7-11).
  4. Those who love God do not love the things of this world with all its lusts that oppose Him, but they put God’s will first (15-17).

In a sort of poem or hymn, John addressed three groups of people within his target audience: babes in Christ, young men and mature saints. He reminded the “little children” that their sins are forgiven, and they have known the Father (12 & 13c). The “young men” were commended for the strength that comes from having the Word of God living inside them, allowing them to “overcome the wicked one” (13b & 14b). And the “fathers” he acknowledged as having “known Him who is from the beginning” (13a & 14a).

In verse 16, John listed three types of lust, or compelling desires, that drive worldly men and women:

  1. “the lust of the flesh” (from the Greek word, sarx)—meaning that which relates to the physical body, as in hunger, thirst or sexual passion
  2. “the lust of the eyes” (Greek ophthalmos, from which we get the word, ophthalmology, the study of eyes)—coveting what we can see, usually a desire for more stuff or for a person to whom we may be visually attracted
  3. “the pride of life” (Greek alazoneia + bios)—a boastful obsession with the accumulation of stuff or achievements that we have gained in the course of our lives

John indicated that anyone controlled by these things is not under the influence of God, but is caught up in the world—which is passing away—while those doing God’s will live forever (16-17).

John then asserted that he and his generation were living in the final hour of human history (18). Why did he suspect this? Because of the prevalence of antichrists in the world. Sadly, many of these opponents of Christ were coming out of the Church. Yet John insisted they were never true Christians, and said their apostasy, or falling away, proved it (19). Even though his readers had “an anointing from the Holy Spirit” and knew the truth, John just wanted to clarify for them what the Spirit was surely indicating in their hearts (20-21).

John said, “no lie is of the truth” (21c). Furthermore, anyone “who denies that Jesus is the Christ” is a liar, an “antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (22). No mincing of words or niceties here!

Previously Jesus had said that whoever believed in Him believed also in God the Father, who sent Him (John 12:44). The opposite is equally true: Whoever doesn’t believe in Jesus also does not believe God the Father, who sent Him and testified concerning His Son. That’s the point John was making in his epistle concerning antichrist: “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the son has the Father also” (1 Jn. 2:23). Anyone who supposes that non-Messianic Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are saved because they say that they believe in God the Father is mistaken. True faith is a package deal—either you accept Christ and get the love of the Father also, or you reject both YHWH Elohim and His Son, Y’shua.

John urged believers to live according to what they had been taught originally regarding Christ, so that they would “abide in the Son and in the Father,” eventually receiving the promise of eternal life (vv. 24-25). He didn’t want anyone else to lead them astray, but reminded them that the anointing of the Holy Spirit would teach them “concerning all things” and keep them on track with the Lord (26-27).

As long as we live in Christ, we can be confident and not shrink back in shame when He returns (28). Those who know He is righteous also recognize that God’s children will live righteously, as well (29).

1 John Chapter 3
At the opening of this chapter, John broke out into a joyful exclamation: “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1a, NLT). He pointed out that, just as the world doesn’t know God, it’s natural that they won’t acknowledge us, either (v. 1b). Although we are God’s children, we won’t be complete until Christ’s return; then “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (v. 2). Our expectation of His inevitable return motivates the saints of God to purify themselves, “just as He is pure” (3). Like any good children, we want to be just like our beloved papa!

John defined sin as lawlessness and indicated that the person who sins is living like someone without the law (4). Jesus was sinless and came “to take away our sins” (5). Again, this isn’t just talking about Him taking away the penalty for our sins already committed, but also the propensity toward future sin. How do I know that? Look at the next verse. As long as we live in Him, we won’t habitually sin; while the constant willful violation of God’s law manifests a heart that does not know Him (6).

In other words, you can’t continue to be a practicing homosexual and call yourself a Christian. You can’t continue to commit fornication or cheat on your spouse and think that you are pleasing God. You can’t lie, curse or steal and expect people to believe you belong to Jesus. All of these things are condemned by God in both the Old and New Testaments. These behaviors don’t demonstrate a love for Him or for others; therefore, they prove that you have not given yourself over to God as you claim.

In verses 7-8, John explained that the person who does what is right is righteous, just as Jesus is; while the sinful person shows he/she belongs to the devil “who has sinned from the beginning.” Jesus came to abolish the works of the devil and to plant in our hearts the seed of His nature, so that we would not sin (8-9). What seeds are growing from your heart?

Here is how we tell friend from foe: The children of the devil can neither do what is right, nor are they capable of truly loving one another (10). From very early in the Bible and confirmed through Jesus’ ministry and the teaching of His disciples, God’s message has been, “we should love one another” (11). Cain murdered his brother Abel “because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:12; c.f.—Genesis 4:1-9). Likewise, it should not surprise us that the world hates those of us who are righteous in Christ (1 Jn. 3:13). Our love for one another is evidence that “we have passed from death to life,” while the person who doesn’t love others is a walking dead man (14). Hatred or disregard for another person is the same as murder in God’s eyes, and “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (c.f.—1 Jn. 3:15 & Matthew 5:22).

Just as Jesus laid down His life for humanity, so we ought to sacrifice ourselves for others (1 Jn. 3:16). If we have worldly possessions, but ignore a person in need, we exhibit a lack of God’s love in our hearts (v. 17). We shouldn’t just say we love, but our attitudes and actions must show it, and then we can be confident before God (18-19).

When we are certain that the God who “knows all things” does not condemn us, then we can be sure that “whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we’ve done all that He commands and desires” (20-22). We can be confident that our prayers will be answered when we do what God says. And what is His commandment? Verse 23 says it is that people “believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another.” How much simpler could it be? The person who does that reveals that he/she is living in Christ, and Christ in him/her, and the Spirit of God gives that assurance (24).

1 John Chapter 4
Next, John provided a litmus test to tell whether a person is a false prophet or truly represents Christ. He wrote, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that…is not of God,” but is antichrist in nature (1 Jn. 4:1-3).

According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, about that time, the heresy Docetism arose, which asserted that Jesus’ humanity was not real and that He only appeared to have a physical body. John had also dealt with a teacher in Roman Asia, by the name of Cerinthus, who taught that Jesus was only a man and that the divine Christ descended on Jesus at His baptism and left Him before the crucifixion. These and other counterfeit teachings insisted that the Lord Jesus was not of a truly divine and/or human nature—ideas which completely contradicted what He Himself and others testified.

The true believer has power to overcome such a spirit, “because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (v. 4). People who are worldly will listen to deceivers, because they speak their language (5). Those who belong to God listen to God’s people, while the worldly reject our message (6). That’s how we recognize “the spirit of truth from the spirit of error.” When trying to figure out where people are coming from, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do they say about Jesus?
  • To whom do they listen?
  • Who listens to them?

John again returned to the subject of love. He repeated the commandment, “love one another,” pointing out that love comes from God and shows that we are His offspring (7). “He [or she] who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (8). The essence of God’s character/nature is supernatural agape love, which was demonstrated when “God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (9). It’s in His DNA, which He passes down to His spiritual children.

We weren’t the first to love God; He initiated the relationship by sending His Son to pay our sin debt (10). In response to that kind of love, “we also ought to love one another” (11). Our expression of this divine love for others proves to us and them that He is resident in our hearts, that we’ve received His Spirit and are living in Him. Thereby “His love has been perfected in us” (12). Here is yet another scripture by a different author that confirms that agape love, rather than supernatural gifts, is the hallmark of the infilling of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life (See also 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 & Galatians 5:22-23).

John said, “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world” (1 Jn. 4:14). Whoever acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God belongs to the Lord (v. 15). Anyone who believes in the love of God lives in Him, and He in them—if they also love (16). His love give us boldness and casts out fear, since Jesus has eliminated the reason for our fear by suffering in our behalf (17-18a). Anyone who is still fearful is not yet complete in love and doesn’t fully comprehend this (18b). “We love Him because He first loved us” (19).

If love is a missing ingredient in a person’s life, then there is legitimate reason to believe God is absent, too. John said, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” [There’s that word again…] “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (20).

I used to think I was okay regarding this verse, since I did not violently hate anyone. However, when I learned the full range of meaning for that word, translated “hate” in our English Bibles, I realized how far short I fell of God’s love! The Greek word, miseo, means not only to hate/despise/detest, but it can also be translated “to disregard.” The word for brother, adelphos, can be rendered not only as a sibling by birth, but also by religion, nationality or ethnicity, as well as a business associate or simply one’s fellow man. So if you put those together, we can say that any person who says he/she loves God but disregards or devalues another human being is fooling him/herself. Ouch! To summarize, John relayed this command from the Lord: “he who loves God must love his brother [fellow human] also” (21).

1 John Chapter 5
If we believe Jesus is the Christ, we’re born of God; and if we love the Father, we also love His children (1 Jn. 5:1). We will naturally love fellow believers, if we truly love God and keep His commandments (v. 2). When we boil down all the Old Testament Law, as summed up in the two rules Jesus highlighted—love God and love each other—it’s really not that hard (3). Love isn’t a feeling, after all, so much as it is a commitment to act in a way that shows others the same respect and consideration with which we would like to be treated.

If loving your neighbor seems difficult, remember that “everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4, NIV). It is not your feelings toward another person, but faith in Jesus, the Son of God—who overcame the world and its lusts and temptations—that will give you the power to be victorious in your life and relationships (vv. 4-5).

John next enters into a seemingly unrelated vein of thought—a theological discussion about the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son. He wrote, “This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ…” (6). John really didn’t tell what water and blood refer to. After all, every child is born with a release of both water and blood from his/her mother’s womb, so it is probably not natural birth that John was talking about. Perhaps he was making reference to the blood and water released from Jesus’ pericardium when the soldier pierced His side at the cross. It was significant enough for the apostle to mention in his gospel—along with Old Testament prophecies regarding the event (John 19:31-37)—so perhaps he felt it was worth eluding to here. John then explained that the Spirit also bore witness on the earth concerning Jesus, in agreement with the water and the blood (1 Jn. 5:6 & 8). Since “the Spirit is truth” and conveyed God’s message to the prophets, this interpretation makes sense.

John added, “there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one” (v. 7). What clearer statement of the doctrine of the triune nature of God do we need? Mathematically, we could state: The Father + Jesus [the Word, according to Jn. 1:1-4 & 14] + the Holy Spirit = God. They are not one in the sense that they are all the same person; otherwise, John would not have said, “there are three that bear witness in heaven.” Rather, they are a single unit composed of more than one component—as in the case of the first couple, Adam and Eve, who were two individuals made from and who became “one flesh” (Gen. 2:21-24).

John said, “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son” (1 Jn. 5:9). Perhaps here he referred to the event of Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit of God descended on Christ in the form of a dove, and the Father declared from heaven that Jesus was His Son (Mt. 3:16-17, Mark 1:9-11 & Luke 3:21-22). All three witnesses were present at once, followed by the testimony of John the Baptist (Jn. 1:29-34)—which would be one example of “the witness of men” that Jesus is God’s Son. “He who believes in the Son of God” has this combined witness within himself; while anyone who doesn’t believe has not only rejected God’s testimony, but has called Him a liar (1 Jn. 5:10)!

John further asserted that “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (v. 11). Again, it’s that idea of a package deal, an all-or-nothing mentality. When you receive Jesus as your Savior and Lord, you get that gift of life that never ends; if you don’t, then you won’t have eternal life (12). John wrote that his purpose in writing believers was so “that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God” (13). Unlike Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and adherents of other religions, believers in Christ are assured of a life in the hereafter. We don’t have to guess about it or hope we might make it in; we know we’re going to heaven. What a tremendous sense of relief and peace we can enjoy!

When we believe that, we’re also confident that God hears our prayers and will grant our requests (14-15). This makes us more effective intercessors. When we see a fellow human being committing “a sin which does not lead to death,” we will ask, and God will grant life to that person (16a). John defines sin as unrighteousness of any kind (17).

Although John tells us “There is sin leading to death,” about which we are not obligated to pray, he does not really define it (16b). Perhaps he refers to the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which Jesus mentioned in Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:28-30. Whatever it is, John did not forbid us from praying, so I would rather err on the side of grace and pray for every soul that has not yet acknowledged Christ as his/her Savior!

John then assured his readers that the one born of God is kept by Him from sinning and that “the wicked one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18). In other words, you can’t ‘lose your salvation,’ as some denominations teach. While the rest of the world “lies under the sway of the wicked one…the Son of God has come and has given us understanding,” so we know Him and are secure in Him (vv. 19-20). With that in mind, John concluded his treatise by saying, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen” (21).

In contrast to many feel-good pastors today, the Apostle John takes a hard line against sin and in favor of a truly transformed life for those who belong to Christ.

First of all, he makes it clear that every human being has sinned and needs a Savior. We have to agree with God that this is true and allow Him to not only forgive us of sin, but also remove the desire to sin.

Second, the evidence that God lives in us is that we not only love Him, but we truly love and care for others. Anyone who doesn’t walk in the kind of supernatural love that is the essence of God does not really know Him.

Finally, the evidence that a messenger is from God is that he/she agrees that Jesus was both God and man. Anyone who denies either of these truths is not only lying to you, but is also calling God a liar. Knowing that we belong to God and that He hears and keeps us gives us faith to live a victorious life and to trust Him for what we need.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from
the New King James Version of the Bible—© 1982, by Thomas Nelson, Inc.