Joe’s notes on the First Epistle of John

That which was from the beginning….we declare to you….  (I John 1:1ff)

(For my suggestions on introducing this Bible study for your people, see #7 below.) 

I confess.  I read scriptures looking for gold.  Some of it is found in nuggets on top of the ground, just waiting to be discovered and appreciated. Others are in veins which need to be mined and worked and treated carefully and faithfully.

The opening of the First Epistle of John is pure gold and for good reason….

That which was from the beginning…which we have heard… which we have seen with our eyes…which we have looked upon and our hands have handled…. And we have seen and bear witness and declare to you…that which we have seen and heard we declare to you….

Get the point?  John, the old apostle–the last one standing–is saying, “I was there.  I know.  This is not hearsay.  This is not something I thought up.  This is the Truth; it’s what I know.”

There is no substitute for a personal experience.  “The person with an experience is never at the mercy of someone with an argument.”  Consider…

The Apostle Peter: We did not follow cunningly devised fables…but were eyewitnesses of His majesty… and we heard this voice which came down from Heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.  (2 Peter 1:16ff) 

The Lord Jesus: We speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen…. No one has ascended to Heaven but He who came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man….  (Jesus speaking to Nicodemus in John 3) 

The Apostle Paul: Last of all, He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (I Corinthians 15:8)  There stood by me tonight an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve, saying, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul… (Acts 27:23)

The Early Apostles: For we cannot but speak the things we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20. 

So! Looking at these statements of personal experience, we conclude…

–The Bible is not a collection of myths.  It is the real deal.

–The Bible we hold in our hands is superior to all other books.  There is nothing else like it.  It contains the very revelation of Heaven.

–None of us can be first generation believers.  We have not physically seen our Lord Jesus and touched Him.  But we can all be second generation believers–receiving the testimony of the apostles, believing their reports and putting our faith in Jesus, and coming to know Him personally in this way.

–After Pentecost, those who were saved were discipled by the small band of believers.  How?  They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers.  (Acts 2:42)  We have the same apostles’ doctrine that was taught to those early believers; we have it in written form.  In many respects what we have is superior to what those early believers received, since the apostles were still thinking things through and getting organized.

–Believers today can do nothing better than to live in this Word.  Lest someone protest that “this is the word of John” or “the word of Peter,” we say with 2 Timothy 3:16ff that All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the person of God might be complete…. As Peter put it: Holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). 

So, yes, men wrote it; but only after God spoke it!


One. With its five chapters, the First Epistle is not a neatly organized essay with points 1, 2, 3.  It’s more a letter dictated “off the cuff,” in the heat of the moment, with lots of repetition and passion.  Throughout the epistle, John returns to several concerns again and again…

-a) Sin is sin.  There is no justifying or overlooking it.  “No one who has little thoughts of sin will ever have big thoughts of God.”

–b)  The Cross is God’s provision for our sin. As Heaven’s Messiah, Jesus perfectly dealt with sin once and for all.  That is the gospel message.

c)  He cleanses us.  When Jesus forgives us and cleanses us of sin, we should be done with it forever. Believers forsake their sins.

–d)  Trust and obey.  Believers are known by obedience.  We walk the walk.  By our obedience we show we love the Lord (John 14,15) and that we know Him (I John  2:3ff).  See 2 Corinthians 2:9.

–e)  The Lord’s disciples will love one another, as God has loved us.  That is our badge and is not optional.

f) The worldly culture is our enemy. We must not fall in love with the world or conform to its standards. If we do, we lose everything.

In addition to these major points, there are numerous minor concerns sprinkled throughout the epistle.  Those who are antichrist prove it by their departure.  By “abiding” in Jesus, we have confidence at His return.  John mentions several reasons for writing this letter.  The devil himself is a liar, his demons can and should be tested, and his children are known by their deeds.  The Trinity bears witness to Christ’s message.

Two. Beware of those wanting to “improve on” the Christian faith.  That’s what was happening in Ephesus with the false teachers whom John addresses. Without that problem, John would not have written the epistle and we would have been so much poorer without it.  Over the centuries, other groups have arisen aiming to improve on the message of Christ, so in these epistles we have a great example on how to respond to them.  Their methods will include…

–They pose as believers with good intentions.  But we should not be fooled; their effect will be to strip the Christian faith of all that is Truth and of God.

–Their methods will include… a) removing doctrines which modern man finds objectionable.  b) stripping the faith of all miracles.  c) changing the hard teachings of the faith.  (God’s people should never lose sight of I Corinthians 2:14.  The natural man just doesn’t get it!)

–Their attacks will usually focus on a) the gospel message itself.  They want to soften it, widen it, pretty it up.  b) what we believe about God.  They want to soften Him, ignore His wrath, ignore His demands, and pretend His judgment will not happen.  c) the humanity/deity of Jesus.  Either or both is a problem for them, so don’t look for consistency.  d)  Salvation: turn it into “works” and make sure everyone is saved regardless of what they believe or how they live.  e) Everyone goes to Heaven and no one goes to hell.  f)  Scripture: reinterpreting it, adding to it.  g) morality: adapting it to the world’s standards, an oxymoron since the world has no standards.

Such gospel-improvers are our enemy and should be shown the gate. (2 John 10 says we are not to help them, not to receive them, not to show them hospitality, and not even to wish them well!)

Three. Each believer should think through “what we know about sin.”  Each Christian needs a theology of sin.  

–What does Scripture (all of it!) say about sin?  Start with Isaiah 59:2 (it separates us from God).

–What are the three types of sin? (see Exodus 34:7 and Psalm 51:1-2 for the answer:  iniquity, transgressions, missing the mark)

–Are all sins the same? (Have you lost your mind??)

–Is it possible to live without sinning? (If we take I John 3:6,9 out of context, the answer is ‘yes.’ But if we try it, we find the answer real quick.)

–Who sins? (Romans 3:10,23)  Only Jesus has lived sinlessly.  Not even Mary pulled it off (she calls God “my Savior”–Luke 1:47).

–Does God understand that we are simply unable to live in this world without sometimes sinning?  (Check out Exodus 34:6-7, Exodus 20:24-25, and Psalm 103:14 for starters.  Answer: God is under no false illusions about you and me.  He who created us knows we are made of humble stuff. He got no bargain when He saved us. When we sin, the only one surprised is us.)

–Does God ever call up old, forgiven sins and use them against us?  (Hebrews 10:17.  Micah 7:19.  Psalm 103:11-12.  Answer: No!! He does not “retire this case to the files to be brought out in case we are ever called back into His court again.”  Thank Him for that!)

–What about the scripture which says “the soul that sins, it shall die”? If that’s the case, aren’t we all in a lot of trouble?  (That statement is found in Ezekiel 18:4,20 and is based on 2 Kings 14:6.)  Answer:  While that was indeed a “law of the Old Testament period,” a newer, more recent law has annulled it and put it out of business.  See Romans 8:2. “For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”  This is the law of faith:  “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”  Period. Forever.  That’s why Romans 8:1 says “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Dr. Adrian Rogers had a good word for us on Christian’s sinning.  “A Christian will lapse into sin and loathe it.  The unsaved will leap into sin and love it.”

Four.  Each believer needs an understanding of the Cross of Jesus.  We need to work out our theology of atonement.  “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins…” (I John 2:2).

This will be the work of a lifetime, so don’t be impatient if your progress is slow.  Keep at it.  Here are some texts to get us started…

–Exodus 20, the “Ten Commandments” chapter.  After giving us His standard–which was a wonderful gift, not at all burdensome–the Lord did something else:  He made provision for an altar.  See verses 24 and 25.  Since we would not be able to keep His perfect standard, we would need a way back into His presence.  Every altar in the Old Testament pointed to Calvary, so clearly the cross was God’s plan from the beginning.

–John 3:14 where the Lord Jesus refers to Numbers 21:4-9. Jesus was the fulfilment. (I find it fascinating that this story is given in Numbers without the first note of explanation.  The only other scriptural reference to it at all, other than our Lord’s mentioning it to Nicodemus, comes in 2 Kings 18 where King Hezekiah is clearing out pagan idols and altars and finds that same bronze serpent–bear in mind this is maybe 500 years later!  People were worshiping it! He destroyed it.)

–Acts 20:28  When Jesus died on Calvary, that was “the blood of God” being shed. Put that in your theology and think about it!

–I Corinthians 2:8 “Which none of the rulers of this world knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”  Satan had no idea what God was up to by allowing His Son to go to the cross.  I love knowing this.

–Colossians 2:13-15 “…having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us.  And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross….”

–Hebrews 2:14-15.  By Jesus’ coming, by His death and resurrection, He did two huge things:  He defeated the one who had the power of death, the devil, and delivered those who through fear of death were subject to bondage all their lives.  Wow and double wow.

You and I must get straight on the cross or nothing will ever be right for us.

Five.  What do we know about Christ?  That was a huge issue for this First Epistle of John.  The Gnostics were undermining Jesus’ uniqueness and John was rightfully upset.

Who is Jesus?  Is He man or God, or both?  Historically, people have gone to one extreme or the other:  a) That He was all God and only seemed to be human.  John 1:14 and Luke 24:39 contradict this.  b) That He was all human and not at all God.  That means He would have His own sin to atone for and could not have been our Savior.  Every page of the NT contradicts this.

A great clue:  Jesus said “no one knows who I am except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22).  He went on to say that no one knows the Father except Himself “and they to whom I reveal Him.”  Therefore…

–we must admit up front that Jesus is inscrutable, far beyond us. That is, we will not satisfy those who demand simple answers with quick solutions.  If you and I do not comprehend how we are “body, soul, and spirit” (I Thessalonians 5:23), it’s a lead-pipe cinch we cannot figure out the makeup of the Lord Jesus Himself.  This does not, however, prevent us from considering all Scripture says about His identity.

Some things Jesus said about Himself are worthy of our inspection and our reflection–

–Jesus calls Himself “the Bridegroom” in Matthew 9:15 and “the Son of Man” 83 times in the gospel, a phrase attributed to Daniel 7:13,14 (a messianic title referring to His humanity and humility).

–In Matthew 12, Jesus says He is greater than the temple, the sabbath, the devil, Jonah, and Solomon. (I smile when I hear someone say only the Gospel of John makes Jesus out to be deity.  You wonder if they have ever read their Bible!)

–In the Gospel of John, every chapter is loaded with references to Jesus’ deity.  Best known of all, there are the “seven I AM statements”.  Also, we have John 3:13-14 and our Lord’s High Priestly prayer in John 17.  Check out 10:18 and 11:25-26 and 14:1-6.  (Some will say Jesus never claimed to be God in the flesh.  But it’s all through Scripture.  And Scripture is all we have.)

“Jesus Christ is everything the living God has to say about Himself.”  –Dr. John R. Bisagno

Six.  Here are four passages from John’s Epistles which are often misused and misinterpreted…

–I John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive….” 

The plain meaning of this promise is that He forgives what when confess.  He will not take away sins we have not identified and released, which we have not admitted and repented of.  However, some misuse this promise to demand that we are to constantly go over our lives with a microscope in search of every sin.  We are to name it and released it to receive forgiveness.

I’ve read books promising revival to God’s people which call for this very thing.  They will say, “Go into your closet and go back over all your life.  Ask the Lord to identify for you every sin you have ever committed. Then name it and ask His forgiveness for it.”  I confess to having believed that and preaching it at one point in my life.  The result, however, would be to turn God’s people into fearful, sin-focused, negative weaklings.

Nowhere in Scripture do we see anyone doing that.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We set our garbage on the curb.  Later in the day, the garbage truck arrives and takes it away.  Somewhere else, way out of town, the garbage is dealt with.  Likewise, when I confess my sin, I am not “dealing with it.” I’m only setting it on the curb.  Calvary is where my sin is dealt with.

–I John 2:2 “…and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.” 

The plain meaning of this text is that Jesus died for all.  As Hebrews puts it, “By one offering He has perfected for all time those who are saved,” and “He made that sacrifice and sat down at the right hand of the Father.”

What some do with this text and one or two others is to interpret it to mean everyone is automatically saved because of Calvary, regardless of whether they repent and believe or not.  Universalism is attractive to the modern mind and is a big element in liberal theology, but cannot pass the test of Scripture.  The result of believing such would be to rob the Gospel of its meaning and contradict a thousand scriptures.

–I John 3:6,9  “…whoever abides in Him does not sin.” 

The plain meaning is that we are to live holy lives.  What some do with these statements is to lift them from the context and teach the possibility of sinless perfection, that we can “live above sin.”  The result, other than contradicting the rest of Scripture, is that people who believe they are above sin–they call it being sanctified–will end up excusing their sins, overlooking their faults, and explaining away their wickedness.

–III John 2  “…I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.”

The plain meaning of this opening to the Third Epistle is: “I wish you well.”  It was as simple as when we say, “Hey, how’s it going?  Fine I hope.”

Some have turned it into a promise of health and wealth.  The prosperity gospel people love this verse.  Jim Bakker of PTL infamy admitted after his downfall that he had repeatedly misused this verse in order to manipulate people.  As a result, it corrupts Christ’s message and endorses an emphasis on self and materialism.

Seven.  Here are a couple of thoughts on ways to introduce the study of John’s Epistles…

–Imagine a letter from home.  All the epistles (letters)–whether from Paul, Peter, John, or whoever–are one side of a two-sided conversation.  The problem is we have only the one side, the “answer” to the questions or problems posed by someone else.   So, when studying an epistle, we pay attention to what’s going on, what problem is being addressed, who is being spoken to, and such.

Now, when we read devotionally, we do not do that.  To read a scripture devotionally usually means looking for the Lord to say something to me today about my situation.   But to really get into the Scripture, we want to learn about that situation, about the world of John or Peter or whoever.  So, for this, we read analytically, not just devotionally.  When we read analytically, we study the passage.  We research the meaning of words, we delve into hard-to-understand statements, and learn all we can.

See the next analogy.

-Reflections on the pond.  Our minister of music Joe Joslin and I had traveled up near Asheville, NC to overnight with our church’s youth who were on a retreat.  Next morning, on our drive back to Charlotte, I told Joe I’d like him to see Connemara, the lovely home of the late author Carl Sandburg, at East Flat Rock, NC.  I’d been there once before and knew he would enjoy seeing it.

In front of the home is a huge lake crossed by a foot bridge.  It was mid-morning and the sky was a brilliant blue, with clouds radiating their glow.  As Joe and I stood on the bridge looking at the water, I was struck by the absolute perfect reflection of the sky on the surface of the water.  No mirror was ever more true.  I said, “Isn’t that beautiful?”  And Joe said, “Yes, and I’ll bet some of those beauties would dress out at two pounds.”

I said, “What???”  And then I realized something.  Joe was a fisherman.  He was looking down into the water, watching the fish swimming around.  Since I am in no way a fisherman, we were looking at that pond in entirely different ways.

People come at the Bible in two ways.  Some do what I was doing: Look for a reflection of their world, their situation, as though Scripture were a mirror.  Others do what Joe did: Look beneath the surface, inside the text to see what is there, to learn about the biblical world.  The first is devotional reading, the second critical, analytical reading.  Each is valid, neither is superior.  But we need both.

Most church members, I suspect, have never gotten beyond the devotional reading stage.  Consequently, they know only the verses that have spoken to them about their situations, and little if anything about the New Testament world, the occasions for the writing of the epistles, why scripture says certain things to one group and something else to another.

The writer of Hebrews may have had this in mind in 5:12.  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God and you have come to need milk and not solid food.

That depressing situation will continue until the person in the pew decides to do something about it.




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