The American Revised Version of the Scriptures has been employed as the text of these Epistles rather than the familiar King James Authorized Version. There are many delicate shades of thought in this important portion of God’s Word—perhaps more than in almost any other book of the New Testament—which are lost or confused in the Authorized Version. There are truths here, as Peter says in regard to Paul’s writings—2 Peter 3:16—“hard to be understood, and which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, to their own destruction.” I have endeavored to avail myself of the help supplied by various translators of the Bible, to arrive at the most correct interpretation of the precious (and by no means easily understood or explained) truths of these letters from the pen of the beloved Apostle John. It is with the earnest hope and prayer that this commentary may supply a simple view of the deep truths in these Epistles that it is being sent forth. If the reader derives as much blessing from the reading as the author has from the writing of it, he will be well repaid.
Yours in our Lord,
August Van Ryn
Introduction To The Epistles
Before entering upon the detailed study of these wonderful Epistles of John, let us consider briefly the distinctive ministry of the three most prominent writers of the New Testament, that portion of God’s Word as penned by inspiration by Peter, Paul and John. I am borrowing most of what immediately follows from another.1
Peter’s ministry is similar to that of the Lord Jesus Himself. We see this when comparing Romans 15: 8 with Galatians 2: 7, 8. Romans states that “Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers”. And Galatians tells us that “the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto Paul, as the gospel of the circumcision was to Peter, for He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in Paul towards the Gentiles”. Thus Peter’s ministry had Israel specially in view. Romans 15:8 shows that it was for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. From the call of Abram to Jacob’s going into Egypt God was making promises, as in Genesis 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 22:15-18; 26:2-5, 24; 28:10-15; 35:9-12 and 46:2-4. All these promises are absolutely unconditional and made in the sovereignty of divine grace on the sole condition of faith in God. None are addressed to the Gentiles. The Gentiles have no promises; no covenant was made with them—see Eph. 2:12. The Gentiles were contemplated in the promises, but they were not ministered to them. They were ministered to the fathers of the nation of Israel, as Romans 9:4 proves.
While these promises were ministered to Israel, the fulfilment of them was in the future. Hebrews 11:13 declares that they all died in faith, not having received (the fulfilment of) the promises, but having seen them afar off and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. They died in faith, and they left these unfulfilled promises as a legacy to their children. Their descendants, however, came on a different footing—on the footing of conditional covenants. The need for this was the need of raising—for them and for all mankind as well—the question of man’s ability to establish a righteousness on which to claim what had been promised. Under law, man took upon himself to work out a righteousness he could call his own, by which he could prove his title to the things God had promised. But God, by circumcision, which typifies the unprofitableness of the flesh, signalized man’s total inability to please God. It showed that all man could rightfully claim as his own was his sins, and that he was shut up to sovereign grace alone; by faith and not of works. The trial under law was a long one—16 centuries—and thus a fair and absolutely conclusive one.
Having thus demonstrated that Israel had lost the promises beyond all hope of recovery, God then sent forth His Son, made also under the law—see Gal. 4:4. Thus God raised up an Israelite in Whom the promises were yea and Amen. The Lord Jesus could and did establish a title to all the promises—Romans 15:8. Having therefore a personal claim to all the promises of the law, He also had by this a right to remove the hindrance that prevented the blessing from coming to others. He did so, by taking the curse of the law, thus being the end of the law for righteousness to all that believe—Romans 10: 4. But, though the Lord Jesus Christ did establish and secure the promises thus, Israel continued in blindness and unbelief; therefore it became necessary to continue the dispensation of confirming the promises. It became necessary to appeal to facts in evidence to show that the promises had been permanently secured. It is this that characterizes Peter’s ministry. Like Christ, he was connected with the circumcision; like Christ, he was a minister in behalf of the truth of God; he announced to Israel the security of the promises and their permanent establishment. Like Christ, Peter had a ministry which was specifically addressed to the circumcision—to Israel as a nation.
Peter’s first address tells us that the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost was the beginning of the fulfilment of the promise—Acts 2:18. This tells us that the promises had begun their fulfilment. Next he shows that God, in exalting Christ, proves thus that He acknowledged the Lord’s claims and rights—Acts 2:22-36. Thus in ver. 38 of that chapter the nation is urged to submit to Christ in order to receive the promise of the forgiveness of sins; and in ver. 39 Peter encourages them to do so, assuring them that the promise of the forgiveness of sins had been made to them. Again, in chapter 3:19, Peter tells them that the promised blotting out of their sins and the times of refreshing waited on their repentance. But Peter’s ministry was rejected by the nation as a whole, as Christ’s had been—chap. 7:51. Individuals submitted to the Lord and became the recipients of a blessing that was according to promise, but the nation in blindness and unbelief refused the proffered blessings.
If Christ had a ministry in which He addressed Himself to the Jewish nation as such, He also had a ministry in which He addressed Himself specifically to the true children of God in the midst of the unbelieving nation. In John 10 He called His own sheep by name and led them out, calling them the true sheep of the fold. So with Peter. He was to minister to the lambs and the sheep of the flock— John 21:15-17. The Lord knew what tender care, feeding and shepherding these sheep of His would need amidst the wickedness and unbelief of the nation. If in the earlier chapters of Acts we have the ministry of Peter addressed to the nation as a whole, in his Epistles we have his ministry to the persecuted disciples, the true flock of Christ. Of course, his minis- try has a spiritual application to all believers as well, but its primary application is to believers connected with Israel—see 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1.
Paul also had a double ministry. One towards the world, towards the nations, towards all men; the other towards the Church, the Body of Christ. As we read in Colossians 1:23-25, he was both minister of the gospel and minister of the Church. In both cases it was a ministry of the grace of God, as we read in Ephesians 3—to make known the unsearchable riches of Christ to the unsaved: and to make the saints see the fellowship of the Mystery. In the Old Testament times promises were made, but the blessings implied in the promises were not dispensed. When the Lord was on earth, He did dispense certain blessings to individuals where He found faith. He did forgive sins, but He did not minister the full blessing that goes with the fulfilment of the promise of forgiveness, He did not give the Holy Spirit. Peter both spoke of forgiveness of sins and there was also the impartation of the Holy Spirit, thus going beyond the blessing the Lord Himself gave, yet Peter did not minister the fulness of blessing which is the portion of faith in the present day. This was reserved for Paul. The full range of faith’s blessings, so far as these are now bestowed, is through the ministry of Paul. We also have in Paul’s ministry the blessings that are still future—our eternal blessings. Thus in Paul’s ministry we find the sphere of blessing in which God displays the fulness of His wondrous grace. Thus Paul’s ministry truly fills up the Word of God, as he says in Col. 1:25.
The leading feature of John’s ministry is that it occupies us with God Himself, with what He is in Himself, He presents the life of God—the eternal life that was ever with the Father. It presents the manifestation of God in the Lord Jesus Christ,—the Man Christ Jesus—in John’s Gospel. In the Epistles we have that eternal life, once found only in Christ, seen as communicated to those who believe in Jesus, and displaying itself in us.
The distinctive features of Peter’s, Paul’s and John’s ministries are plain. They are not in opposition, but perfectly harmonious. They are not to be compared, as if one were paramount to the others. There should be no depreciation of Peter’s ministry as though it were defective, or not equally perfect with that of Paul and of John. There is a tendency in almost all Christians to give greater prominence to the blessings ministered by Paul than to the Blesser Himself. John occupies the heart with the Blesser Himself. We are so prone to be occupied with our blessings rather than with Him; and here John’s ministry fills a most necessary place, and one full of blessing and greatly needed by the believer. What would all our blessings be without the Lord Jesus Christ, the Blesser? The Giver is greater than His gifts. The Father who gave the Son, and the Son who gave Himself for us are far above the benefits they have secured to us; and we need the sense of this in our souls to keep us from glorifying ourselves on account of the great blessings that have been given unto us. The ministry of John serves to maintain that very needed apprehension.
The teaching of John’s Gospel is that life—essential, unchangeable and eternal—dwells in the Son of God. In Him was life—chap. 1:4. Thus He is the Light, the Truth, the Source of life to man. Man never had that life. When God made man, he became a living being, by an impartation not of divine, eternal life, but of the spirit nature, so that, as being by creation a living soul having spirit, man was in the image and likeness of God. Man never had eternal life merely by creation. This is a special impartation through faith in a crucified Christ alone.
All through the ages, from Eden down, individuals have received Him, have bowed the knee to Him and thus have all been subjects of a divine work in their souls. They have been born of God by faith, as John 1:12, 13 states. But, until Christ came into the world, such were not given the privilege of taking their place as children with the Father. The place of children of God is made known by the Son sent of the Father, as in John 1:12. But how could God give eternal life and a divine nature to sinners? The Cross is the answer. The basis on which God ever gave divine life to man is the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus—see John 3:14-16. Thus the purpose of John was: 1st, to show who Jesus is; 2nd, that those who believe, may have everlasting life, through His Name.
1 “Readings on the First Epistle of John.” by C. Crain.