With age and experience comes wisdom, and if there is one thing which shines through the text of John’s Epistles, it is his wisdom. The term “Elder” may not have been used in the same sense as the actual Church office of Elder and identifying himself as “the Elder,” in these letters seems to imply age and experience were indeed on his side. Regardless of the meaning, it is clear that the words of John’s epistles are written with God’s full authority (see Second Timothy 3:16-17), and as authoritative scripture, we have an obligation to understand the words of John and to heed them.
So what exactly is the purpose of John’s epistles? The one theme all three letters contain is correction. Whether that correction came in the form of advising against (or for) certain actions, a warning about certain dangers or even guidance through certain teachings, it was ever-present through each of the epistles. All three stand to help the individuals to whom they were originally addressed guard their faith and protect the integrity of the Church.
It was apparent that a deep-rooted problem had emerged among the communities who first received these letters. This problem surrounded an issue attacking one of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity: the deity of Christ. According to First John, there were some denying that Jesus was even the Christ:
Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is the antichrist who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
First John 2:22-23
Additionally, the second letter addressed to the “elect lady and her children” expressed a deep concern regarding certain deceivers who did not confess the coming of Christ in the flesh (see Second John 1:7). Those false teachers were preying on the Church, stealing sheep away from the flock of God. In his first letter, John told them how to put those deceivers to the test:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
First John 4:1-3
It is likely those deceivers were precursors to the movement known as Gnosticism, which taught all matter was evil. They essential believed an evil God created matter while a good God ruled over the spiritual realm. Gnostics couldn’t understand how the perfect sinless deity of God and the imperfect sinful nature of man united flawlessly in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be wrong to categorize this group as full-fledged Gnostics, as there is no proof Gnosticism had fully developed as early as the first century.¹ They are merely some of the first (but certainly not the last) to teach a form of this heresy.
John made a point to deal with these false teachers (who he called antichrists in First John 2:22) harshly and swiftly. He warned the recipients of his first epistle to ignore the teachings of these people and to abide in the teachings which they had heard from the beginning (see 2:24; 27). It has been said that “the rise and spread of Gnosticism forms one of the dimmest chapters in Church history.”² While it’s not the same exact circumstance, the rise of this false teaching were dark days as well.
Even though denying the deity of Christ is much less common today, we can still apply his warning to other false teachings today. When someone comes to us with teachings that are made out to be new or revolutionary, we need to be cautious. To teach against Apostolic tradition which has been established for thousands of years is dangerous. When someone does this, red flags ought to be readily apparent. It is clear that the recipients of First John were so disrupted by these false teachings they lost confidence in their faith. Towards the end of this letter, he said:
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.
First John 5:13
It seems the audience of the epistle “needed this reassurance because their confidence had been shaken by the propaganda of the secessionists and their claims to Spirit-inspired teaching, which went beyond what had been received from the beginning.”³ It’s likely this movement seemed intellectual and more-than-likely claimed to have a deeper, more advanced understanding of religion. In the same vein, the rise and spread of modern false teachings can have equally disastrous effects. Often, those who hold on to the teachings and traditions of the past are labeled old-fashioned, out-of-touch, and needlessly pushed away all for the sake of something new and relevant.
So who exactly are these false teachers? Do they possess any similarities to someone who might earn that moniker today? 2 Peter 2 and Jude make the qualities of false teachers abundantly clear. Interestingly enough, if we used those qualities as our guidelines today, we might call people false teachers with much less frequency. They use words such as “deceivers” to describe these false teachers. Peter also used words such as “destructive,” “sensual,” “blasphemous,” “irrational,” “ignorant,” deceptive,” “adulterous,” “greedy,” and “corrupt,” while words such as “ungodly,” “defilers,” “unreasoning,” “grumblers,” “malcontents,” “loud-mouthed,” “boasters,” and “sinful,” are used in Jude. While that list is quite long, a person doesn’t have to meet all the criteria listed in those letters to be considered a false teacher.
It also seems clear that John did not intend the moniker of “false teacher” to be placed on people who had simple disagreements over trivial things in the Church (i.e. the use of the building, the treasury, or any expedient for worship or benevolence), instead it was to be placed on those who denied, changed, or fundamentally disrespected the Word of God. In the context of these epistles, the phrase was used against those who denied a foundational truth of Christianity – the deity of Christ. John, who wrote about the deity of Christ in the prologue of his gospel, was more aware than most of Christ’s humanity but never diminished His deity. Who better to write to these Churches confirming that Christ came in the flesh than the very man who was a best friend of Jesus? John not only knew of the story of Christ, but he experienced it firsthand. A first person account and testimony is always more reassuring than second-hand sources. With the reception of this letter, we have to imagine that those individuals who received it were not only reassured but comforted in the confirmation that John gave them about Christ and in the rest of his message.
John, in his mission to stir up confidence in the Churches to whom he wrote, talked a lot about six common themes found not only in his letters but in his gospel as well. These themes are life, light, obedience, love, faith, and truth. At the very outset of his first letter, John addresses the “word of life,” and the “eternal life,” to which he has proclaimed to them. These things are invariably connected to Jesus, or as John refers to him, “that which was from the beginning” (see First John 1:1-4). From here, John immediately shifts to address obedience and light in the context of this life found in Jesus. He talks about “walking in the light,” and declares that we must walk in the light and not in darkness in order for the blood of Jesus to have its full effect (see First John 1:7, and Gospel of John 8:12, 12:35-36).
John continued to intertwine those things and add love to the mix. He first established that one must obey God’s commandments in order to perfect (i.e. complete) the love of God (see First John 2:4-6). He continued by saying the darkness had passed away and the true light was already shining, so his readers should obey both the old commandment they heard from him and the new commandment. In connection to what is found in John’s gospel, this commandment was to abide in the light by abiding in brotherly love (see First John 2:7-11 and John 13:34-35). John persisted by adding that Christians shouldn’t to love the world or the things in the world, but rather obey God and do his will (see First John 2:15-17).
John further addressed love and obedience in the third chapter of his first letter. He said the love of God was evident from the fact we are called His children. John said “as His children,” we must remember that whoever practices righteousness is righteous, but whoever makes a practice of sinning practices lawlessness and is of the devil (see First John 3:1-10). In verse 11, John repeated the message he mentioned earlier about love: that we are to love one another. It is readily apparent that John views obedience and love as two things which are so intertwined they cannot be separated:
By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.
First John 3:16-18
After that, he finally confronted the topics of faith and truth. He emphasized strongly that we ought to have faith and confidence. Even when we feel our hearts have condemned us, John encouraged us by saying “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (First John 3:20). John meshed this together with the importance of obedience, saying that we can have this confidence and faith in God because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him (First John 3:21-22). He then reminds us that the commandment we are to obey is to have faith in Jesus Christ and love towards one another (First John 3:23).
In chapter four, John discussed love yet again, saying we supposed to love one another, because love is from God, and God is love (First John 4:7-8). He brought back the theme of life as well by telling us that because of God’s love, we have life in Jesus (see First John 4:9). He further said because of God’s love, we ought to perfect his love and love one another (First John 4:10-12). He restated this relationship between faith, love, and obedience in the latter part of chapter four. In verses 15 and 16, he affirmed the necessity of faith, in verses 16-21 he affirmed the necessity of love, and in verse 21, he affirmed the necessity of obedience.
In chapter five, John began to conclude his message to his readers. He finished his thoughts by summarizing the relationship between the trio of faith, love, and obedience:
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
First John 5:1-5
Because John and his readers where those who remained faithful to the original teachings and fellowship with Christ, they abided with God and were in a place where they could enjoy eternal life. “Those who turned their backs on this fellowship [the deceivers and antichrists mentioned earlier] turned their backs on eternal life. They might claim to possess it – indeed, they might claim to be in exclusive possession of it – but their claim was vain. They had abandoned the true foundation.”⁴ That is why John reminded them to abide in what they had heard from the beginning of their Christianity. This entire letter was a reminder to heed the fundamentals or “true foundation” of their faith, so they may have confidence in their faith in the face of convincing and deceptive false teachers. These fundamentals are clearly stressed in a cyclical and repetitive way throughout the entirety of First John. Again, they are life, light, obedience, love, faith, and truth.
So what does all of this say about the character of John “the Elder?” What does his effort to reassure his brothers and sisters say? What does the restatement of those six core fundamentals in First John mean? First, I think it is clear that John was not only a man who was known for being loved by Jesus, but that he was also a man who expressed his love and care for others in a very emphatic way. If he knew there was any risk at all to the confidence of his brothers and sisters, he was going to set things straight by telling them what they needed to hear. As for the content that made up what they needed to hear, is that something we still need to hear today?
What can we glean from John’s emphasis on faith, love, and obedience? It seems to be unmistakably evident that these three things are bound together in a special way. John said that you cannot have one without the other. If these three things are contained inside a single package like a gift box, the bow that wraps them all together is truth. It is only faith in the truth, obedience to the truth, and love in the truth that matters. In the words of Paul:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
¹ I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company), 15-18.
² Robert Law, The Tests of Life: a Study of the First Epistle of St. John, (Edinburgh, T. and T. Clark), 26.
³ Colin G. Kruse, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company), 27.
⁴ F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company), 28.
All Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright (c) 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.