The verses above tell us that John had three reasons for writing his first epistle. First, he wants his message to give Christians joy. Second, he wants his epistle to keep Christians from sinning. Third, he wants to assure Christians that they truly have eternal life. In reading the epistle, if we miss one of these purposes, we must assume that we have not fully understood what John is saying.
This epistle views Christians as part of a family. Some of its themes are fellowship, light, sin (keeping the commandments), and love, the main theme.
• Understanding The Way John Writes
John uses words differently than they may be used in other sections of the Bible. For example, what are the commandments that we are urged to keep in this epistle, and how is sin defined? John defines the commandments in 3:23: “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” Sin is disobeying these two commandments. Keeping them means that we obey or guard them.
John tends to write in circles, and I don’t mean this negatively. He mentions a topic, then develops it to some degree, and then later may come back to that same topic to develop it even further. For example, to “walk in darkness” is first mentioned in 1:6. Walking in darkness is explained in 2:9 as hating your brother. Then hating your brother is fully developed in chapter 3 where Satan is the source of hate and Cain is the example because he murdered his brother. When we put this all together, it becomes clear that walking in the light is loving your brother. Keeping the commandments adds up to loving God and loving your brother. Not sinning is not being like the Devil or like Cain.
• Understanding His Two Commandments
Keeping these techniques in mind helps us to understand what otherwise might seem contradictory. For example, in 1:10 we read, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” Then in 2:4 we read, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Our usual teaching says that sinning is breaking or not keeping God’s commands. So how can we admit to sinning and yet be keeping the commandments? Notice John does not say that we try to keep the commandments – he says we actually keep them.
First of all, the commandments that we must keep are the two that I have already mentioned. No true Christian can break the command to believe or trust in the name of the Lord. That is how we are saved; and once we find out that it is true that Christ is the Messiah and that He died for our sins, we will never be able to deny that truth. However, the second command is to love our neighbor. While we who are saved could never “hate” like Cain or the devil, and want to murder another person, particularly another Christian, we can fail to live up to God’s standard. So we can sin. However, when we confess our sin as it says in 1:9, we are actually taking sides with God and saying that the commandment is right while we are wrong. Confession then actually guards or keeps the commandment, while those who say that they have not sinned are really destroying the commandment. Consider this example:
Suppose I am driving and don’t see a stop sign. The stop sign is the law and I am supposed to stop. When I do not stop, my wife might poke me and say, “You didn’t stop for that stop sign.” At that point I have two choices: The first is to say, “You’re right, I should have stopped.” In doing that I have “kept” or guarded the commandment and confessed my sin. My second option is to say, “Who put that stop sign there? It doesn’t belong there and it doesn’t do any good there!” Now I am not keeping or guarding the commandment in the sense that John is talking about. This is like the person who “hates” his brother and has no conscience about wanting to murder him. This is the person who doesn’t confess his sin, but persists in it according to John.
Now when we look at sin as all sin and keeping the commandments as always doing what the Old Testament Law demanded, then we won’t have joy or assurance in our salvation. All of us know that we sin at times even though we are saved. But when we see confession of sin as one way of keeping the commandments, and when we see sin as not hating our brother, now the standard is attainable. Christians with a tender conscience can have joy even when they confess their sin; they will want to make sure that they don’t continue in the sin and they can be sure that they are saved. So the three reasons for John’s epistle will have been achieved.
• A Brief Look At Each Chapter
Chapter 1 introduces the beauty of fellowship within the family. We are reminded that we can’t be in fellowship with each other unless we are in fellowship with God. The vertical relationship (with God) must be right for the horizontal relationship (with others) to be right. Chapter 2 introduces us to the idea of walking in the light and keeping the commandments. Chapter 3 more fully explains this. Walking in darkness is hating a brother, and hating a brother makes a person a murderer. So a saved person cannot walk in darkness in this way. In this epistle, we don’t walk in the light some of the time and in darkness some of the time. We either walk in the light or in darkness. In other words, we are either saved or lost. The saved are walking in the light, and the unsaved are not. So in 2:15-17 we see that the unsaved world is no friend of the Christian. If the world is our friend, we are walking in darkness and we are not saved.
Chapter 4 deals with the deception of spirits (manifested in false prophets) who deny that Jesus Christ came as a real person. These were people who said that they had special knowledge that was mystical and that went beyond what was being taught by the apostles. This epistle was probably written about 60 years after the establishment of the Church, and there were already people who were denying basic truths about the Lord. The real test of whether a person is or isn’t a Christian is still, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He” (Mt. 22:42). Those who deny that Jesus Christ is everything that He claimed to be are “antichrist” (1 Jn. 4:3). Today this is even a problem in so-called main-stream Christianity. Those who deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh are setting aside the first commandment that says we are to believe on the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. They persist in a sin of the early Church.
Then John gets practical about what it means to love. First John 4:8 says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Fortunately, if we fail to manifest our love, we can confess our sins according to 1:9. But if we don’t love – if we don’t have a conscience when we fail to love as we ought – then we are simply not born again. First John 3:17 gives us a practical way to show that we are born again – we share what we have with those in need.
First John 5:1 again tells us that if we are born again, we love God and love those who love Him. We also overcome the world, have the witness of God in us and our prayers are heard (5:4-15). That witness is the Holy Spirit who witnesses to us that we are saved, because the things that are written here assure us rather than condemn us. But that witness would also be something that others can see because the kind of love that we’re talking about is the love that is seen by what we do.
First John helps us to see that we have been given enough in the Word of God to know that we are saved. We can also have joy in our salvation and at the same time have a conscience about sin. There is no doubt in my mind that when people say they are saved they also should be able to say that they know they are saved based on 5:13: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” They should know they are saved because they believe on the Lord and love their brother as John has written in 3:17.
The sins that the saved cannot commit are the sin of not believing on the Lord for salvation and the sin of hating our brother. While we may not love our brother perfectly, and as a result may have to confess our sin, we cannot hate him so much that we want to murder him, as Cain did. So what is “the sin leading to death” (5:16)? Would it not be the sin of unbelief as evidenced by hatred and murder? The “sin which does not lead to death” is the failure that we confess. We need to keep ourselves from idols (5:21) because that would violate the whole message of this epistle, that we believe on the Lord Jesus.
Thankfully, according to 5:18 (NIV), “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.” We do not violate the two commands of 3:23, “that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.” This is the major theme of both the Old and New Testaments (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:36-40). In a nutshell, John’s first epistle shows us how to be right with God and how to be right with one another.
By Bruce Collins
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org