THE EPISTLES OF JOHN
The First Epistle of John can hardly be distinguished from a doctrinal and practical treatise. There is no address to it. There are no salutations at the end of it. No author's name is connected with it. One might almost think it was intended as a general exposition of Christian truth; and yet you find, here and there through the work, expressions like this, " I write unto you, little children," which seem to indicate that, in the author's mind, it was an Epistle. Although we do not know the names of the churches to which it was first sent, it is quite possible that it was sent to them by some messenger who assured them of its authorship; so that the name John did not need to be appended to it or mentioned at its beginning. This, in fact, is characteristic of all John's writing. It is always anonymous.
The two other Epistles of John do not mention the author's name. He calls himself " the elder " in them. That word "elder" may not mean "officer of the church," but may be used simply in the sense of "an elderly person," as Paul called himself "Paul, the aged." And in the Gospel, you remember that there is no mention at all of John's name. The "disciple whom Jesus loved" is the nearest he comes to it; so that, although this is an Epistle of John, it is not necessary at all that we should connect our faith in its genuineness with any ability on our part to show the apostle's name connected with it, either in the Epistle itself, or traditionally, when it was first delivered.
The characteristics of the Epistle are the characteristics of John's other writings. There are so many common features of the Gospel, of these three Epistles, and of the Apocalypse, the style of thought in them all is so peculiar, so unlike that of any other of the New Testament writings, that the simplest and easiest hypothesis is that all are the work of the apostle John. Any other hypothesis at once meets with so many difficulties, so many contradictions, that we have to give it up. The universal voice of the tradition of the church ascribes this First Epistle to John; and I think we need pay very little attention to the skeptical objections of some modern critics, for they evidently originate in a carping spirit that no evidence whatever would satisfy. The Gospel according to John is the first of the two main writings, and this Epistle is the second; in other words, the Gospel was written before the Epistle. I do not mean to say that the Gospel is the earliest of John's writings, because the Apocalypse, I believe, is the earliest. The Apocalypse, or book of Revelation, was written thirty years before the Gospel; while the Epistle was written in the very latest period of the apostle's life. I doubt whether we can put the date of it earlfer than the year 96 or 97, at the very close of the first century, long after Paul and Peter had suffered martyrdom, and long after the other books of the New Testament had been written. Quite an interval appears between the writings we have studied heretofore, all of which were written before the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Gospel of John with the Epistle which immediately follows it. The relation of the Epistle to the Gospel is an interesting one. In both of them the great subject is Christ, the everlasting Word of the Father, the revelation of God to man. And yet the aspect in which Christ is regarded is different in the Gospel from that in which he is regarded in the Epistle. The Epistle seems to be an application of the truth that is laid down in the Gospel. In the Gospel, John is a historian; in the Epistle, John is a theologian. Or, if you choose to put it another way, in the Gospel John gives us the historical basis. He represents Christ as coming from God, becoming incarnate in humanity, and living his life before us. Thus he lays the foundation of the Gospel in historical fact. Humanity is incorporated and absolutelly united with the Deity, but it is in the person of Christ; the union of Christ's followers with God is an incident and consequence, but not the main thing that is treated.
This union of Christ's followers with God is the subject of the Epistle. In the Epistle we have the result of the union of deity with humanity, in the life of the church. As the Gospel shows us God incarnated in Christ, the starting-point, so, in the Epistle, we have humanity brought into fellowship with God by union with Christ. As the Gospel sets before us God in Christ, so the Epistle sets before us the church in Christ. In the Gospel we have the great doctrinal fact set before us; in the Epistle we have the ethical consequence of that fact. In the Gospel we have God in Christ; in the Epistle we have Christ in the church. So it is very natural that the Epistle should follow the
Gospel, follow it at no great interval, follow it as a commentary follows a text, follow it as the application ordinarily follows the doctrinal part of a sermon.
Written in the year 96 or 97, therefore, immediately after the Gospel, we find in it no reference to the controversies which had agitated the church in the days of Paul. They all seem to have been settled—that great Judaizing controversy, for example; that question between law and gospel; that dividing line between merely outward Israel and the true church of God— nothing of this appears in either the Gospel or the Epistle of John. Paul has long since passed away. Thirty years have passed since his martyrdom, and John has been called to supervise the churches over which Paul was once the bishop or supervisor. Asia Minor has been for many years the scene of the apostle's labors, and a great many of the early difficulties of the situation have ceased to exist. Jerusalem has been destroyed, so long destroyed that there is not the least mention of Jerusalem in this Epistle of John.
Not only has Jerusalem been destroyed, but the persecutions that circled about that time have all passed by. There is not the least hint in the First Epistle of John that there was any such thing as persecution. The difficulties which John has to meet, the errors which he has to controvert, are not those which arise from external opposition of enemies to the faith. The heathen are not mentioned at all in this First Epistle of John.
The church seems not only to have been launched, but to have proceeded for a long time on a prosperous voyage. No external rocks or quicksands occasion the warnings of the apostle; the difficulties are all internal; such difficulties as would arise in a church that had been prosperous, and which, by virtue of its prosperity, was in danger of forgetting its early love. And so the apostle is enabled to confine himself to those great internal truths and needs which are the same for all time.
It is remarkable how completely John lifts himself up above everything merely temporal, above everything that has reference to the present, and how he strikes at tendencies that are the same from age to age; if you find in his Epistles any reference to errors peculiar to his time, they are errors of a totally different sort from those with which Paul had to deal.
There is one great doctrinal tendency, one great tendency of error, which John, in this Epistle, combats. It has to do with the person of Christ. At the close of the first century there began to manifest itself in the Christian church a disposition to degrade Christ, on the one hand, to the mere level of man, and to hold him to be a mere exalted human being; and, on the other hand, a disposition to regard him as so completely and entirely God that he could not suffer here in the flesh. This latter tendency is represented in the person of Cerinthus. The Christian Fathers tell us that Cerinthus lived in the days of the apostle John, and was in Ephesus at the close of the first century.
What was the doctrine of this Cerinthus? It was this, that Deity and humanity were not from the first indissolubly united in Christ; the union was a temporary one, and a separable one. In other words, Cerinthus did not believe in a miraculous conception; did not believe in a genuine incarnation of God in humanity; did not believe that he who was born of the Virgin was the Son of God as well as the Son of man, divine as well as human. No, Cerinthus held that Jesus was born just as other men are born; that he was a holy man; that he was the choice of God; that, at his baptism, there descended upon him from on high, in the form of a dove, a divinity that took possession of him, and that constituted a union with him that lasted through his earthly life until the time of his crucifixion; and that then he was forsaken by the Father; the death that occurred was not the death of Deity plus humanity, but was the death simply of a human being; all the miraculous works that Christ had previously done were done by virtue of the Deity that dwelt in him and by no power of his own; Deity did not unite itself to him in such a way that his humanity could not be separated from it; and so, Christ went up on high, the human was left here below, and only the Deity went back to the throne. How plain it is that such an incarnation does not answer either to the Scripture representation, or to the needs of our human hearts! It is very like the incarnation that we find in Buddhism, where Buddha comes down in a cycle of ages, joins himself temporarily to a human being, inhabits this humanity for a little time, and then, after he has done this temporary work, shuffles off the humanity like a worn-out garment, and returns alone to his heaven.
How different from the conception of the incarnation in Scripture! In Scripture God unites himself from the very birth of Christ, and forevermore. We call our Lord the God-man. From the very beginning he is the Son of God. The union in him of humanity and deity is indissoluble. When Christ ascends up on high he takes our humanity with him; so that in heaven to-day he has the same hands and feet that were nailed to the bitter cross for us. That is the incarnation, that is the union of humanity and deity for which our human hearts long. We want a union of humanity with God that is permanent; and only that complete union of humanity with God satisfies our needs or furnishes the basis of our fellowship with God. Cerinthus denies this; Cerinthus declares that the union of deity with humanity began only at Christ's baptism and continued only until the time of his death; Christ now is not our elder brother in the sense that he is man as well as God; he cannot sympathize with us now, because he has not the same nature that he had when he was here upon earth. This doctrine is so repugnant to Christian feeling, it is so antagonistic to Scripture that John regards it as the very central heresy of all; and he makes belief in the real union of Deity and humanity in Christ, belief in the permanent union of the Son of God with human nature, a test of all Christian fellowship. There is a tradition with regard to the apostle John that when, on a certain day, he found himself in the public bath with Cerinthus, or heard, as he was in the bath, that this heretic Cerinthus was there too, he seized his single garment and rushed out from the bath in terror, declaring to those about him that he dare not stay under that roof lest the roof should fall upon them as a sign of God's judgment upon such a heretic. There was a revelation of the
burning love and burning hate that characterized the apostle John.
We sometimes think of him as effeminate. We must remember that he was a Boanerges, a " Son of Thunder." That same deep heart of love was inseparable from a heart of hatred for everything that was untrue and impure. The love of goodness that is not accompanied by a hatred of evil is love of a very suspicious sort.
The apostle John has given us, in this First Epistle, a commentary, application, and continuation of the Gospel. He has told us, in this First Epistle, what effect this fellowship with God produces in the heart and life of the believer.
You remember the striking similarity between the beginning of the Gospel and the beginning of the Epistle. In the Gospel we have: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God "; and then, in the fourteenth verse, we have: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (and we behold his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father) full of grace and truth." In the Epistle we find the apostle stirred by the completed incarnation, and speaking of what he himself, as an eye-witness, has beheld: "That which our eyes have seen, which our hands have handled, of the Word of life, that declare we unto you "; and the object of his declaration is that those who believe in Christ may have their joy fulfilled.
As, in the Gospel, he begins with eternity past, shows how the Word of God became incarnate, and then describes the life of God among men, so, in the Epistle, he begins with the complete incarnation, tells us how he himself, among others, had been an eyewitness of the facts of the Saviour's life, and then proceeds to show what effect this great doctrine ought to have upon the life of the believer and of the church.
After this beginning of the First Epistle there are two great divisions of the treatment, the first of them extending to the twelfth verse of the second chapter, and the second extending from that point to the end.
It is difficult to follow the course of thought of the Epistle, and to construct an analysis of it . The apostle, while having the general plan which he is to follow, yet allows himself from time to time to diverge from the path that he has marked out, in order to make particular applications of the truth and to add suggestions that occur to his mind. Exactly where the lines of division are to be drawn it is sometimes difficult to say. The first verse seems to suggest another verse, and the second verse to suggest the third; yet, after all, there can be no doubt that there is a general progress of thought, and that two great ideas are presented in it. If we can fasten in our minds these two ideas of the Epistle, it will be of service to us.
The first is: God is light, walk in the light; and the second is: God is love, walk in love. The first part of the Epistle has to do with God as light; that is, as moral light, as having in him no darkness at all of sin or impurity, and therefore as excluding sin on the part of the Christian, so that he who lives in fellowship with God is bound to walk in the light, as God is light. And if the Christian has come into fellowship with God, that light will reveal the Christian's remaining unholiness, and will show that the Christian is necessarily one who recognizes sin and confesses sin. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If any man says he has no sin, he is a liar, the truth is not in him "; God's moral light reveals the remaining impurity of those who are joined to him; reveals it to themselves; leads them, by his Spirit, to confess that remaining impurity; leads them to seek forgiveness for it and deliverance from it. That is the first great division of the Epistle. Fellowship with God, brought about by union with Jesus Christ, is the one great subject of the Epistle. And the application is obvious. As God is light, let us walk in the light, confess our sin, put away our sin, seek the deliverance from sin which the Spirit of God provides in Christ.
The second part of the Epistle very naturally follows. God is not only moral light, holiness, purity, but he is also love; and fellowship with God in Jesus Christ will, therefore, necessarily lead us first to love God, and then, as the result of that love, to love our brethren also; so that the evidence that we have this love to God will be seen in our love for the brethren, and wherever love for the brethren prevails, it will have its source in God himself, who is love. So we are brought to a recognition of the fact that there should be two sorts of self-sacrifice and service on the part of Christians, one toward one another, and the other toward their Lord. Beginning with the fact of God's great love to us, John saw the necessity on our part of corresponding love toward one another. "Herein is love," or, in the original, "herein is the Love," as if this love of God in Christ were the one great example of love; as if this were the love which included all other love; the love into fellowship with which we were to enter. In other words, the love of God toward the lost world in Christ is love of which we are not only the objects, but also the partakers. Did he not lay down his life for us? If he laid down his life for us, then we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. That is a very simple sort of argument. It is not dialectic. It is not conceived or expressed in the logical way of the apostle Paul. John speaks in a childlike way; he speaks from insight; he puts his thought in the simplest possible form; yet his utterance is wonderfully profound and wonderfully true. This is the very truth we need to make us active and useful Christians.
Here, then, we have the great subject of the Epistle, fellowship with God in union with Christ. God is light: therefore enter into this fellowship of moral light, confess and put away sin. God is love: enter into this fellowship of love; not only receive this love from God, but manifest this love to your brethren; for, when a man says he loves God and loves not his brother, he is a liar, like that man who says that he has no sin which he needs to confess and put away.
We have seen that John's first aim in this Epistle is to oppose a great doctrinal error with regard to the person of Christ, that doctrinal error which would separate between the humanity and Deity of Christ, and conceive of them as dislocated and only temporarily united during the Saviour's life; that great error that denies that Jesus Christ is from the beginning and forever the divine-human Redeemer, Son of God and Son of man. John's second great aim is to combat the great practical error that a man, when he is once redeemed, does not need any further redemption. These prosperous Christians were in danger of forgetting that there was still remaining something to be done, and that they must look to God to sanctify them as well as justify them. It is not enough to be forgiven. Those who say, "God has forgiven me; it is all right with me; I have nothing now to do," must take care to live a life of good works, a life of holiness, a life of love, or they will prove that they are strangers to the grace of God. The practical instruction of the Epistle, then, aims to convince Christians that they must continually seek sanctification, that they must be faithful to Christ in purity of life and in love toward the brethren. A little remark of Luther's is exceedingly apt, and is worth remembering. He says, "He that is a Christian is no Christian "; that is, he who thinks that his Christian life is a complete thing, that he needs nothing more, that there is nothing to strive for, nothing further to do, nothing further to attain, why, he is not a Christian at all. How much there is in that! He who is a Christian, trusts Christian experiences in the past, without trying continually to be a better Christian and to live more near to God, why, that man shows that the root of the matter is not in him. He is not a Christian, for a Christian is one who recognizes his remaining depravity, hates it, longs to be rid of it, and strives continually to be more and more like Christ his Lord.
There is a saying of Jesus himself, of which I think this is only an exposition in another form of words. Jesus bids his disciples love one another and sacrifice themselves for one another; and he says, " So shall ye become my disciples." Become? Why, they were his disciples. Yes, they were his disciples, but they could become more and more his disciples. "So shall ye become my disciples." It is not enough that we are Christians now; there is a sense in which we are to become more and more thoroughly Christians in our daily life. This is exactly what the apostle John seeks. He writes this Epistle in order that those whom he recognizes as already saved by the grace of God may be more and more saved. They may be saved more and more from the evil that is within and without, and they may become more and more like Christ in heart and life.
There are two specific objects which the apostle mentions in addition to this one. He says he writes these things to them that their joy may be fulfilled— that is one thing he aims at; and that they may know that they have eternal life—that is the other aim. There is a knowledge of the fact that they belong to Christ and that they are his, on the one hand; and there is a joy resulting, on the other. These two have an intimate connection with each other. John writes in order that our faith may be turned into assurance; in order that our trust in Christ may become a real conviction. He would have us know that Christ is ours, and that we are his; and so would put us in possession of our proper Christian joy. The Lord is not content that we should be simply Christians; he wants us to know that we are Christians and to have the joy of knowing it; so that the joy of the Lord may be our strength.
It is not possible for a Christian who is living in Doubting Castle, and who is constantly troubled with fears lest he shall be a castaway, to do so much for God or to exert so large or so blessed an influence upon those around him as he could exert if he had the assurance that he was a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. The joy of the Lord is a contagious joy; when it shines out from the features it gives witness to the world of a higher life in Christ; it leads others to seek and to find the Christ who imparts it. John writes with these two ends in view: First, that we may know we are Christians; and secondly, that we may have the joy that belongs to Christians. This Epistle, written in his age, and just before his death, is his legacy to the Christian church.
There is something very striking in the point to which we have arrived in our study of the New Testament. This is the last of the New Testament documents, the last word of inspiration, and how calm, how authoritative, how apostolic it is!
A single word with regard to the Second and Third Epistles. The second is apparently written to a lady, an elect lady, who has a Christian household which is threatened by the invasion of false teachers, and she is warned against them. It is a beautiful illustration of family religion in the apostolic age. The Third Epistle is written to Gaius; and in that Epistle Gaius is warned not to yield to the false instructions of a certain Diotrephes, who seems to be a pastor or elder of the church who has refused to obey the commands of the apostle and to entertain certain evangelists whom he had sent to minister in that neighborhood. This Third Epistle furnishes evidence of church organization in the apostolic age. In the First Epistle we have no mention of church organization, and no mention of religion in the family. The Second and Third Epistles supplement the First, and show us that both existed, although in the First Epistle we have no allusion to them. So the three together constitute a complete whole, and round out the whole work of apostolic instruction which John the apostle was sent to perform. Like the Lord who sent him, he could say that he had finished the work which God gave him to do.