Welcome to Fellowship with God: Confidence in Christ, a Study of the Epistles of John. Summer is now really and truly behind us, the Fall studies have begun, and I am looking forward to exploring the epistles of John together with you. The past two years we have dug into the writings of Paul and Peter, and now we will learn what the Holy Spirit has to teach us through the voice and pen of John, the beloved disciple of our Lord.
We began this week with an introductory lesson, to ease into our study with a closer look at the author, the recipients, and the circumstances of these three (particularly the first) letters.
*But first, a disclaimer: Having used material written by others for many years, this is the first time I have written a study. I therefore beg your forgiveness in advance for any difficult-to-understand questions or hard-to-follow lines of reasoning. I am using several excellent commentaries written by trusted scholars as well as running each chapter past friends and a pastor for pre-reading. Any mistakes or difficulties are entirely mine. I pray the Holy Spirit prevents me from misrepresenting anything in his Holy Word.
Our introduction to the epistles of John began with an investigation into exactly who the author of these letters is, since none of them begin with the traditional signature of the author.
The first epistle of John, unlike the letters of James, Peter, and Paul, opens without introduction. The second and third epistles give only the enigmatic “The elder” (2 John 1; 3 John 1) as a clue to the identity of the author. External evidence that John, the apostle of Jesus Christ, is the author of these letters comes from the early church in the second and third centuries, including the writings of John’s disciple, Polycarp, and the testimonies of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, and Dionysus the disciple of Origen.
Sometime around A. D. 110, Polycarp wrote a letter to the church in Philippi in which the resemblance to John’s first epistle shows up rather clearly:
“For everyone who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is an antichrist”; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil. —Philippians 7:1
Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist [see 3:8]. —1 John 4:2-3
The internal evidence (the content of the letters themselves) that the apostle John is the author of both the fourth gospel and 1 John is found in the similarities in style, vocabulary, and themes between the Gospel of John and the epistles attributed to him.
For example, note the similarities in the following passages from 1 John and the Gospel of John:
But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:11)
So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. (John 12:35)
Or the following:
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. (1 John 2:3)
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)
We looked at many other passages, and those were only a fraction of the parallels found between John and 1 John. It seems that these phrases dropped from Jesus’ lips to John’s pen, and John’s writing style remained the same from his gospel to the epistles.
Space prohibits me from listing all the parallels found between the gospel of John and 1 John (as well as the fact that I don’t want to scare you off in this, our first lesson). According to my tally of John R. W. Stott’s count there are at least 46 parallels between the fourth Gospel and the apostle John’s first epistle. “Even a superficial reading of the Gospel and the first letter reveals a striking similarity between the two in both subject-matter and syntax. The general subjects treated are much the same. It has often been pointed out that the author of each has the same love of opposites set in stark contrast to one another — light and darkness, life and death, love and hate, truth and falsehood — while people are said to belong to one or other of the two categories, with no third alternative.” The evidence for the authorship of John, the beloved disciple, is very strong indeed.
Who is John?
Next, we looked at selected passages from the gospels to learn more about John the disciple of Jesus. When we studied the life of Peter there were many more episodes recorded in the gospels from which we could gauge his personality than there are for John, since Peter seems to have been more vocal and impulsive than the rest of the disciples put together. John does weigh in with his opinion on a few occasions, which provide illuminating glimpses into his character.
We read first that Jesus nicknamed John and his brother James the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), and then we read several reasons why this was a very apt name indeed:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (Mark 9:38)
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. (Mark 10:35-41)
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56)
From petty jealousy to impulsively destructive anger, with some breathtakingly arrogant assumptions thrown in for good measure, John and his brother James were not winning any popularity contests among the band of disciples nor were they showing much of the longsuffering patience or love for others which Jesus was trying to teach them. Yet the Lord saw in them what was difficult for natural eyes to discern, because, along with impulsive Peter, they were his inner circle among the disciples, present for his transfiguration and closest to him in the garden of Gethsemane as he prayed before his arrest (Mark 9:2; 14:32-34).
At the cross we get a glimpse of what Jesus must have seen in John when he alone of all the disciples stayed with the women to be near the Lord as he suffered and died. The rest had fled, fearing for their own lives, but John stayed, loyal to the end. And even though our Savior was in agony, his lifeblood flowing to provide atonement for the multitude of God’s elect, he saw his mother in need and provided for her—obeying the law by honoring her even as he died—by asking John to take her into his care (John 19:25-27).
And then, after the women brought news of Jesus’ resurrection, John raced with Peter to the tomb. Seeing evidence that the body of their Master was not stolen, but that he had risen from the dead, they believed (John 20:1-10). Later, John was with the group of disciples who went fishing with Peter when it seems they were still out-of-sorts and not certain what they were to do now that everything had taken such an unexpected (though not unforetold) turn. John is the first to recognize the Lord standing on the beach when he repeats for them the miraculous catch of fish by which he had introduced himself to them three years earlier when he called them to follow him (John 21:1-7 & Luke 5:1-11).
Later still, as the infant church was ready to be born, we see John among the other disciples, all arrogance and expectation of hierarchy gone, as he humbly joins them in unified prayer (Acts 1:13-14). And finally, we learn that he is among the leaders of the church in Jerusalem who welcomed Paul as a fellow apostle and approved his ministry to the Gentiles. Paul, not only an outsider to their apostolic band, but one who had viciously persecuted the church in its early days. Rather than thunder at him, calling down fire to consume him, John extends to him the right hand of fellowship, welcoming Paul to continue his gospel ministry (Galatians 2:1-2, 7-9).
Who are the recipients of John’s epistles? According to the internal evidence from the first epistle, John is writing to established believers who are not new to the faith, who have heard the word, are abiding in the Father and the Son, and who have been loving one another (2:7, 24; 3:11). These believers have known Christ and the Father, have overcome the evil one, and are strengthened by the indwelling word—all of them, not merely an elite sect within the church (2:13-14). These are Jesus-acknowledging and -confessing, commandment-keeping, loving-one-another, believers in Jesus Christ (2:23; 3:23; 5:10). The second and third epistles are clearly addressed to specific individuals, and we will look closer at them when we reach our final lessons.
So why is John writing his first epistle? He tells us straight out that his intent is that our joy (including his own) may be complete; so that we may not sin—but when we do sin there’s still hope, because we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ; and so that we who are believers may know for certain that we have eternal life. That’s a biggie—knowing that we who believe in Christ are secure in him for our eternal destiny is a knowledge that many true and sincere believers just do not share.
Sadly, there are many who do not understand that the origin and nature of salvation comes from God and not themselves, and they are therefore uncertain of their security. If my salvation depends upon my own strength, I will surely fall away. But if it depends upon my Omnipotent Father, who loved me and chose me for himself before the creation of the world, and then sent his Holy Son to secure my salvation with his own blood to forgive me of my sins and make me righteous, then there is nothing in heaven above or hell below to separate me from my eternal inheritance in Christ!
John’s readers needed these assurances because their covenant communities had been shaken by false teachers who were proclaiming a false salvation. John’s first epistle especially seems to be written with Gnosticism in the crosshairs. John Stott sees in John’s arguments a refutation of the sort of Gnosticism taught by Cerinthus (a contemporary of John) and his disciples, who denied that Jesus was the Christ-come-in-the-flesh (2:22; 4:2), regarded holy living with indifference (3:4, 6, 9), and were unloving to other believers (4:8, 20). They disregarded these foundational tenets of the faith because they claimed “to be a spiritual aristocracy of the enlightened, who alone had come to know ‘the depths,’ [and] they despised the ordinary run of Christians.”
As John addresses these heresies, he gives us even today a firm foundation for assurance of faith. For those who are unsure where they stand with God, John gives rock-solid, objective grounds for knowing whether or not they are in Christ. Our faith does not stand or fall by subjective measurements which may be here today and gone tomorrow: blown about by the wind of emotions or tossed by the waves of circumstance. John tells us that if we love other believers, if we keep God’s commandments, and if we believe that Jesus is the Christ-come-in-the-flesh, we can know that our faith is genuine.
Now, none of us do these things perfectly, but if this is the general bent of our lives it is true of us not because we worked it up on our own strength, but because of the Holy Spirit at work in us—and the Holy Spirit only ever indwells the children of God. (But enough of that for now- that’s a future lesson or two!)
The point is, John’s encouragements are just as true for and needed by us today. How encouraging is it to know that our good and loving God knew that we would need this encouragement 2000 years ago, and so he inspired the apostle to write exactly what we needed to hear? I don’t need new, novel ideas to encourage me in my faith in the Lord who inhabits eternity, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Rev. 1:8; 22:13; Heb. 13:8). This leads me to the final point I want to make in our introduction.
The Covenant Thread
John proclaims the good news that God’s promise from the beginning—His promise to our first parents after they chose disobedience rather than obedience, thus breaking fellowship with Him and bringing death and sin to the entire human race and all of creation—this promise to give us life and bring us back into fellowship with Him has been fulfilled in the person and work of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, and it is marvelous to behold. God fulfilled his promise because He made a covenant to do so, and God is faithful to keep this covenant. As Reformed believers we understand the whole of Scripture through the lens of covenant theology. J. Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt clarify the importance of the covenantal thread woven throughout the Bible:
God’s covenant of grace supplies the vital structure, the unifying thread, of His redemptive plan set forth in Scripture. The covenant of grace is the sovereignly initiated arrangement by which the Triune God lives in saving favor and merciful relationship with His people. Because we are in union with Him, we are united to His other children. So the covenant of grace defines our relationship to God and to one another. It orders a way of life that flows out of a promise of life. To realize this is to think and live covenantally.
In her book on Covenantal Life, Sarah Ivill suggests that to find the covenant thread woven throughout Scripture it is helpful to look for the promise of God’s presence, the person of Jesus Christ, the people of God, and the practice of God’s people. As we go through our study of the epistles of John we will follow the covenant thread by looking for these themes.
We looked into a few passages to find these themes and found that pulling a single thread often revealed more than one covenantal theme. When John writes of our fellowship with one another and with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ (1:3), he is pointing to the promise of God’s presence which has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, resulting in us becoming the people of God. Later, when he writes that we are God’s beloved children, separated from the world and relying on our future hope of his appearing, born of God and therefore no longer making a practice of sinning (3:1-3, 9), he points to the future promise of the fulness of God’s presence which we will experience in heaven as well as his presence with us now, as our Father, resulting in our practice as his people of living holy lives because we have been born again—which is how we became the people of God.
I could go on, but I want to reserve the marvelous discoveries of the covenantal tapestry for where we will encounter them in future lessons. I pray that this introduction has whet your appetite for the rest of our study and I look forward to exploring the depths of the wisdom and grace of our Lord with you through the writings of the beloved disciple, the apostle John.
 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 195-196.
 Ibid., 195
 The stylistic similarities between 1 John and the book of Revelation can’t be captured in a verse reference, but both books follow a circular pattern, each returning to the same themes in more depth as the books progress.
 John R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 19: The Letters of John (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, originally pub. 1964, reprinted 2009), 21.
 Stott, 51.
 J. Ligon Duncan III and Susan Hunt, Women’s Ministry in the Local Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 32.
 Sarah Ivill, The Covenantal Life: Appreciating the Beauty of Theology and Community, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 5-8.