The First Epistle of John - Part 3
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
1 John chapter 2 – Part 1
The fact that sinless perfection cannot be realized, 1. 8, 10, does not mean that we can be indifferent to sin. Chapter 2 verse 1 gives a further reason why John writes as he does in chapter 1 verses 4-10, ‘that you may not sin’. John passionately seeks progress in holiness for all his readers, as is evident from the tender appeal ‘My little children’, a term that is characteristic of John and one that he learned from his Lord, John 13. 33. The term does not imply their immaturity; rather, earnest concern on the part of the apostle. Taken together with Chapter 1, these verses teach that sin should be only occasional in the life of a believer. ‘And if anyone sins’ perfect provision for timely restoration of fellowship is already in place: we have an Advocate with the Father. The word for advocate is the Greek ‘parakletos’, literally ‘one called alongside to help’. The same word is used of the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel, 14. 16, 26; 15. 26; 16. 7, where it is translated, ‘helper’ NKJV, ESV, ‘comforter’ KJV. Again, John’s use of ‘we’ includes his personal need.
Our Lord’s advocacy is primarily with (lit. ‘towards’) the Father, suggesting His perfect access and fellowship with the Father, Rom. 8. 34. But advocacy also has a man-ward side. He is Jesus Christ the righteous - He will never minimize our sin, but uses the indwelling Spirit, John 14. 16, and the word of God, 13. 10, to make us conscious of sin and lead us to confession, 1 John 1. 9. Peter’s experience provides an illustration of this gracious work, Luke 22. 31-33, 61. We must not polarize the Godhead and imagine that the Father’s view is different from Christ’s – both are holy and righteous, John 17. 11, 25; yet our Lord is uniquely qualified to restore the communion that has been compromised, He Himself is the propitiation for our sins.
Our Lord’s advocacy is based upon the eternal value of the propitiation He made once for all at Calvary, Rom. 3. 25. ‘Propitiation’ (Gk. hilasmos) is a very important biblical concept1 meaning the righteous removal of the wrath of God, so that mercy can flow out to the unworthy. It occurs only here and in chapter 4 verse 10 in the New Testament.2 It is not simply that Christ made propitiation, but that He Himself is perpetually the propitiation for our sins. Thus, the living Person is the eternal proof that the righteousness of God has been fully satisfied through His suffering the penalty of sin at Calvary.3
Israel in the Old Testament became inward looking, imagining that they had a unique claim on God, Rom. 2. 17-20. Similarly, among John’s opponents Gnostic élitism focused on the privileged few. By contrast we are reminded here that our Lord’s propitiation for our sins is not for ours only but also for the whole world. There is no limit on the scope and value of that mighty work – it is sufficient for all, but efficient only for those who believe.
Excursus: On the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel, atonement was made for the tabernacle itself, Lev. 16. 16. The tabernacle was defiled by the very presence of the sin-prone Israelites in the camp. Atonement was made in order that fellowship with a holy God could continue in spite of their uncleanness. Corresponding to this type, our fellowship is maintained by the perfect atonement of our Lord.
Walking in the light: Test – Obedience, 2. 3-6
Verses 3 to 6 supply a further test of fellowship with God: the believer is characterized by obedience. The section indicates definite progress in the knowledge of God: know Him, v. 4 . . . in Him, v. 5 . . . abides in Him, v. 6.
‘By this’ normally refers to what follows in this letter,4 we know that ‘we have come to know him’ (ESV). We have progressive knowledge of God based on experience. It is no accident that John uses the verb to ‘know’ so frequently. No doubt false teachers claim a superior knowledge that is, in fact, false pretence. By contrast, John looks for that progressive experiential knowledge which is the privilege of every true believer. The evidence of knowing God is that we keep His commandments. To ‘keep’ (Gk. tereo) is to be on the watch to obey and fulfil. The thought is common in John’s writings.5
‘He who says’ is a recurring phrase, 4. 6, 9, and is somewhat more distant than ‘if we say’, 1. 6, 8, 10. The person with no concern to do the will of God, and who does not keep His commandments, is a liar. He is guilty of pretence, and the devil is the father of lies, John 8. 44; the truth is not in him, literally and emphatically, ‘in him the truth is not’.
‘His word’ (Gk. logos) denotes all of God’s revealed will, comprising all His commandments. ‘Truly’, in contrast to false profession, ‘the love of God is perfected in him’. The love of God here means our love for God.6 This verse supplies the first mention of love in this letter – a theme so common in John’s Gospel and Letters that he has been justly termed the ‘Apostle of love’. Note the correlation of obedience and love reflecting an important emphasis in the Lord’s own teaching: ‘If you love Me, keep My commandments’, John 14. 15. ‘Perfected’ means ‘brought to its ripe growth and due accomplishment in character and life’, Findlay.
‘By this’ is forward looking (Law), supported by the punctuation in RV, ESV which have a colon at the end of verse 5. ‘We know that we are in Him: he who says he abides in Him (God) ought himself also to walk just as He (Christ) walked’. For John this is an evidence of true fellowship with God. Our Lord is our perfect Example, 1 Pet. 2. 21: the believer not only claims to abide in God, compare John 15. 4-10, but also feels duty bound to walk even as Christ walked. We often use the word ‘ought’ in a weak sense, but here it means a weighty obligation; for other important Christian obligations.7 This verse significantly brings together ‘abiding’ and ‘walking’: true abiding will not lead to retreat, but is dynamic and practical, marked by progress in the knowledge of God, v. 3. On the subject of ‘abiding’, J. N. Darby explains, ‘it is dependence, practical habitual nearness of heart to Him and trust in Him, being attached to Him through a dependence on Him’.8
Walking in the light: love for the children of God, 2. 7-11
In this and the following sections of chapter 2, the focus of the test changes to love. First, the believer’s walk in the light is evidenced by love for all fellow-believers. At the same time, his faithfulness is seen in steadfast refusal to love the world in its many guises, 2. 15-17. Between these two sections, three distinct groups within the family of God are identified, 2. 12-14.
A better supported reading for the opening of verse 7 is ‘Beloved’ ESV. This is thoroughly in keeping with the context – love. What exactly is the commandment? It is to love one another, 3. 23. It is not novel, in fact they have heard it ‘from the beginning’. ‘The beginning’ refers to the start of their Christian lives. In his letter John is constantly directing the believers back to foundational truths they had been taught, in marked contrast to the innovations of those propagating error. On the other hand, the commandment to love is ‘new’ (Gk. kainos, fresh) in the sense that our Lord re-stated its importance, ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another’, John 13. 34. The commandment becomes a fresh imperative in the light of His sacrifice.
‘Which thing is true in Him and in you’, v. 8; ‘true’ not in the sense of the opposite of false, but real and complete in contrast to the partial and imperfect. Christ is the complete and perfect Exemplar of the love of God, advocating that we love even our enemies, Matt. 5. 44. No one has ever loved as He did! Presently, we shall see that the whole concept of love has been redefined by His sacrifice, 4. 10. ‘In Him’ (Christ), the perfect fruition of the love of God is seen; ‘in you’ (believers), though real, it is as yet partial and progressive.
However, ‘the darkness is passing away’.9 Christ’s exaltation has guaranteed that the kingdom of light will ultimately prevail. The darkness is sure to pass away, but elements linger, and will do so, until the consummation of God’s purposes. Yet ‘the true light is already shining’, a decisive change has come about where there was unrelieved gloom. The believer has the light of God within, where once darkness reigned, Eph. 5. 8. Further, there is joyful progress in the light; true light shines, v. 8 . . . in the light, v. 9 . . . abiding in the light, v. 10.
Verses 9 to 11 continue an alternating set of contrasts in John’s familiar style. Love for all those who love God is a key test of Christian profession. Loving one’s brother is not mere camaraderie, or fondness for those who we happen to get along with, Luke 6. 32. Rather, it is a holy determination to love all those who belong to Christ because they are His. ‘Brother’ in this context is not necessarily to be taken as the equivalent of ‘genuine believer’: John will address a person on the ground of their profession, and supply tests designed to isolate those whose profession is spurious. His diagnosis is very serious: ‘He who . . . hates his brother, is in darkness until now’. He has never known the light of the knowledge of God. The opposite behaviour, v. 10, is welcome evidence of abiding in the light. ‘There is no cause for stumbling in him’ probably means, ‘I shall not stumble in the light’, noting the close parallel, John 11. 9, 10.10
The brother-hater ‘is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes’. The verse illustrates a terrible progression: ‘in darkness’ (domain), ‘walks in darkness’ (activity), ‘the darkness has blinded his eyes’ (resultant helpless condition). A man blinded by hatred cannot see where he is heading, and has no true perception of the character of his actions; his moral judgement is undermined.
The contrast is thus complete: hatred reveals a total absence of the love of God, and raises the gravest questions, whatever people may profess. How searching for all who profess to follow the Lord of love!
Progress in fellowship: Three groups addressed, 2. 12-14
These verses stand between positive and negative tests of love, 2. 7-11, 15-17. They provide an encouraging counter-balance to the sombre note struck in verse 11 and the stark warnings of verses 15 to 17. They also present some challenges in interpretation:11
- What is the significance of ‘little children’, ‘fathers’, ‘young men’?
- Why the repetition and variation in verb tenses? See RV, NASB.
- What about female Christians?
Addressing each of these points in order:
1 It seems best to follow the formatting of NKJV and ESV and understand that John is twice addressing three groups of believers identified by spiritual experience rather than physical age (though there will often be a correlation with age). Note that in these verses ‘little children’ is to be understood as the most recent converts, not believers generally as in the rest of the letter. ‘Little children’, ‘fathers’, ‘young men’ at first sight seems a peculiar order,12 but it is noticeable that John has most to say to ‘young men’, the final category addressed in each case. As a sensitive pastor he recognizes the differing needs and challenges facing the believers according to their growth, Isa. 40. 11.
2 The simplest explanation of the repetition is that it is for emphasis. Love, the section topic, is for him the essence of Christianity and he wishes to make an urgent appeal to each group. The first three verbs are in the present tense, and the second set of three13 are considered to be ‘epistolary aorists’ – a pleasing touch whereby an ancient writer would place himself in the position of the recipient of the letter and say ‘I wrote’. Rendering these in the English present tense is commonplace, e.g., ESV.
3 Female believers are not explicitly identified, but if the understanding of the three groups is correct (1), they have their place according to spiritual growth.
John and the rest of the apostles looked for definite progress and growth, 1 Cor. 3. 1-3; Heb. 5. 12. Are we growing in the knowledge of God as we should?
In reminding the ‘little children’, the most recent converts, that your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake’, John is not informing them so much as reminding them that this is the basis of all that he is writing. Their sins are forgiven not because they deserve it, but for ‘His Name’s sake’. The term ‘Name’ points to both the person of Christ and His saving work, Acts 4. 12. Plummer observes, ‘Names in Scripture are constantly given as marks of character possessed or of functions to be performed . . . the Name of Jesus Christ indicates His attributes and His relations to man and to God. It is through these that the sins of St. John’s dear children have been forgiven’.
John addresses the ‘fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning’. ‘Fathers’ are believers who are mature in the knowledge of God. ‘The spiritually adult in the congregation . . . they have progressed into a deep communion with God’, Stott. Wisely, John does not lecture the ‘fathers’ at any length, neither should we! Progressively they have come to know ‘Him who is from the beginning’, the eternal God who is beyond the advancing years and who inhabits eternity, Ps. 90. 1, 2.
The ‘young men’ are at the forefront of spiritual warfare: ‘You have overcome the wicked one’ – again John happily recognizes their achievement before issuing warnings. Every case of true conversion is a victory, the liberation of a soul from the clutches of the ‘wicked one’ – Satan, 2. 14; 3. 12; 5. 18, 19. At the same time their victory is on-going, and verse 14 identifies their resources.
Additionally, ‘the little children . . . have known the Father’, cp. Gal. 4. 6.
The glory of young men is their strength, Prov. 20. 29, in this case spiritual strength. ‘I have written to you, young men, Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you’. We now discover the secret of their strength – the word of God has become a resident power within, John 15.7; 17. 6, 14. Our Lord modelled the means of victory in the wilderness with His fourfold appeal to Scripture, ‘It is written’, Matt. 4. 4, 6, 7, 10.
Whilst some interpreters have seen verses 12-14 simply as a digression, the relevance of John’s comments to each group becomes clear, and supplies hope as we approach the next section with its warnings about the world:
- The little children know the Father, thus the love of the world should recede, v. 15.
- Fathers know Him that is from the beginning – the eternal One; by contrast the world is passing away, v. 17.
- The young men are strong through the word and have overcome the wicked one – the ruler of this world, John 14. 30.
- See a major discussion in L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, pgs. 144-213. In recent times some theologians who do not adhere to the biblical view of the wrath of God have tended to water down the term ‘propitiation’ to ‘expiation’ RSV, or ‘atoning sacrifice’ NRSV. Morris’ contribution is a valuable exposition of the biblical passages in relation to this vitally important term.
- See also Num. 5. 8 and Ps. 130. 4 LXX (Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament).
- See Rom. 3. 25 where the similar noun hilasterion occurs.
- See 2. 5; 3. 24; 4. 2, 13; 5. 2.
- See 3. 22, 24; 5. 2, 3.
- Compare 2. 15; 3. 17; 4. 12; 5. 3.
- See 3. 16; 4. 11; 3 John 8.
- Darby John N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible (Vol. 3), Lancing: Kingston Bible Trust, pg. 375.
- The present tense (NKJV) is an important improvement on KJV ‘darkness is past’, because it signifies that the powers of darkness have been decisively defeated, hostile elements of darkness remain in the present, though doomed to complete eradication.
- Others understand, ‘I shall not be a cause of stumbling to other people’; this has in its favour that the Greek word for stumbling, skandalon, normally refers to offence caused to others. But this is less likely.
- Is there significance in the change in Greek word that John uses for children teknia, v. 12, paidia, v. 14? Christ used both teknia, John 13. 33, and paidia, John 21. 5, when addressing His own. Stott comments, ‘if any distinct flavour is preserved between them, teknia emphasizes the community of nature between the child and its parent, while paidia refers to the child’s minority as one under discipline’. Bruce adds, ‘As both nouns take their precise meanings from their correlation in the two contexts with ‘fathers’ and ‘young men’, they must be synonymous, indicating a more restricted group than the general ‘my little children’ (teknia) of verses 1 and 28 or the ‘little children’ (paidia) of verse 18’.
- Some expositors (Law, Findlay) resolve this by taking ‘little children’ to refer to all believers as elsewhere in the letter, and then seeing only two component groups addressed ‘fathers’ and ‘young men’. But the repeated parallelism of three groups counts against this understanding.
- According to critical texts, the ‘write’ in v. 13c, ‘I write to you, little children’, is, in fact, in the past (aorist) tense, ‘I have written’: see RV, NASB. This better fits the symmetry of the three groups addressed.