Notes On The First Epistle Of John

The leading subject of the First Epistle of John is the life of God manifested upon earth in the Person of the Son, and communicated to man by Him—this life being the basis of intercourse between man and God. The exposition of this blessed subject is accompanied by numerous unfoldings occupying a large place in this Epistle; still the fundamental subject is— “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”

The whole doctrine of the Epistle is set forth in chapter 1, and verses 1, 2 of chapter 2. These three consectutive truths are found there; namely, divine life communicated to man, and our introduction into communion with the Father and the Son, in virtue of that life (chap. 1:1-4); the nature of the God with whom we are in communion (chap. 1:5-10); and the means ordered by God for maintaining us in communion. Chap. 2:1, 2.

In the portion contained between chapter 2:3, and chapter 3:23, John considers the experimental and practical proof of the reality of the life in us. From chapter 3:24 to chapter 4:21 he unfolds the extent of our privilege as recipients of life, and enjoying communion with God, the privilege of God dwelling in us, and of us in Him. Lastly, in chapter 5 he considers the subject in its connection with the testimony of God and faith.

Various elucidations and observations on the subject of antichrists and false teachers are scattered throughout the whole Epistle; warning against the Gnostics, who at that time were undermining the faith of the saints.

Chapter 1.

Verses 1-4. The fulness of the grace which is in Christ: the Son has brought us that eternal life which was with the Father. There is a complete exposition of this truth in these few verses, a general statement introductory to the Epistle.

Verse 1. “That which was from the beginning … which we have seen with our eyes … and our hands have handled of the Word of life.” It is the testimony of eye-witnesses, the apostle’s language suited to the circumstances of the saints, who were at that time threatened by the heresy of the Gnostics. These latter laid claim to development; they said. The Gospels have given us the truth in germ, and now we possess the development of it. Not so, replies the apostle of God, we possess that which was in the beginning, and it is great and perfect enough to admit of no development. The heretics denied also that the Christ had come in flesh. John affirms the contrary in saying: we have seen Him and have handled Him.

Verse 2. This verse is parenthetical. “The life was manifested” in the Person of the Son come in flesh. “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” The life manifested in Christ is an object for faith. “He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath the Son hath also the Father.” This is the objective side on which this truth is first presented. But it has also its subjective side: the life, which has been manifested here below by the Son, abides in us who have believed. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself.”

Let us remark that the life has not in us an independent and isolated existence. Far from leaving us in such a state, it introduces us into communion with the Father. But, besides, this life is Christ Himself; Christ, who is in heaven, is also in us. Certainly there are effects of this life which are confined to our individuality, regeneration for instance, and other such blessings. But the life itself assumes in us a different existence, and, by its link with the source that produced it, presents something larger. The source of the life is Christ; the stream is in us, and the stream is not severed from the source. If a man said, speaking of his hand, “It lives,” it would signify that his hand had an existence independently of the rest of his body. Doubtless the hand lives, but it lives by the life which animates the whole being to which it belongs.

“We shew unto you that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us.” The apostles possessed this life by direct communication; the saints receive it by the testimony borne to this life. “That ye also may have fellowship with us” signifies that you may participate in the things which we, who have seen the Lord, enjoy. “And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The saints to whom these things are said knew already communion with the Father. John desired that they should enjoy their privilege, and therefore he brought it again before their notice. God has not only given us life, but it is His will that every kind of intercourse should exist between Himself and His children.

“Our fellowship.” In virtue of the fact that we have life, we have the same affections, the same sentiments, the same thoughts as the Father and the Son. Jesus imparted to His disciples all the communications by which the Father testified His love to the Son. These blessed communications are also our portion, and we enjoy them in direct relation with the Father and the Son.

Verses 5-10. Here we approach a second general truth. It being our privilege to enjoy communion with the Father and the Son, what is the God with whom we are in communion? For an answer we read this message: “God is light.” The God who has brought us into communion with Himself is the holy God. Such is His nature. Here we notice that when John speaks of God in connection with the work of grace, he uses the expression, “the Father and the Son”; when he speaks of His nature, he says “God.”

Verse 5. “This then is the message.” The apostles, who looked upon the life in the Son and declared it for the blessing and joy of the saints, have also heard the message whereby God reveals that He is light, and they declare that also. “God is light.” The life which we have received and by which we have entered into communion with the Father and the Son, has emanated from God who is light, and by this life we are placed in that light.

Verse 6. In this verse and those following, John confirms by contrasts the truths he has just put forth, and submits them to a counter-proof. In the grace whereby He introduces us into His communion, God gives up none of His attributes, none of His rights. “God is light,” and if we walk in darkness there is no communion between us and Him. To pretend to have fellowship with Him whilst walking in darkness is to fail of the truth of God, and to lie.

Verse 7. But if we walk in the light, we realise blessed communion. In order to enjoy it we must walk in the light, and not merely according to the light. Being in the light we are with God, and there is no place for sin there; and besides the light reveals sin and judges it. “We have fellowship one with another “signifies our mutual communion. “The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” By the existence of sin there is a difficulty to communion as a real thing; but the blood of Christ has removed this difficulty, it answers before God for the condition of man. To be cleansed from all sin is to be conscious of being without spot before God, in virtue of the blood of Christ. This spiritual state of the saints only exists through the gospel. Under law the worshippers retained a conscience of sins; the ineffectual offerings of bulls and of goats could give them no other standing. But ours is very different and far better. We possess that infinite grace which, through the sprinkling of the blood of Christ, places us with a purged conscience in the light of the presence of God, with a capacity for enjoying the fellowship of one another also God.

Is the child of God sprinkled by blood several times? No, for the sprinkling of the blood upon the believer answers to the shedding of blood accomplished once for all before God, neither is repeated. It is important that the Christian should hold fast a true sense of the value of the blood of Christ offered once. Otherwise we sink into Jewish elements, and for every failure we seek a fresh sprinkling. Now this is precisely the state which the apostle contrasts with the conscience perfected by the blood of Christ; Heb. 10:14. “The worshippers once purged have no more conscience of sin,” Heb. 10:2.

Verse 7 sets forth the state of the Christian with regard to purity, even as verses 2 and 3 do with regard to communion with God. Set in the light by the cleansing blood of Christ, and abiding there we are in communion with the saints; but communion has been first formed with the Father and the Son by the life we received in the Son.

Verse 8. “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves.” The light requires that we should confess what we are in our nature. To say that we have no sin is not only ignoring a truth but also deceiving ourselves. In such a case the truth is not in us, for if Christ who is the truth dwells in us, we must know that we carry about a sinful nature.

Verses 9, 10. The light also requires that we should confess the truth as to our actions. If we deny that we have sinned, which is equivalent to denying that sin is in the world, we are not converted, and in that case the word is not in us. “He is faithful and just.” He cannot fail to answer to that attitude of grace which He has taken towards us.

Chapter 2.

Verses 1, 2 are the third general truth. In these two verses John sets forth the means whereby we can remain in communion with Him who is light. He consequently presents the advocacy of Jesus. Although in our present state we are not altogether beyond sin, for it is still in our nature and, alas! shews itself too often in our conduct, yet grace provides the means for maintaining us in communion with God or for restoring us when it is disturbed. It reconciles our weakness with the perfect position in which we are set to enjoy fellowship with God. Jesus Christ the righteous intercedes for us.

Verse 1. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father.” The intercession of Christ is looked at more particularly in this connection, as the result of that grace which lifts us up when we have fallen, although that intercession also serves to keep us from falling. Has sin shewn itself in our walk? Far from undergoing the misfortune of remaining under the effect of our sin, we experience through the intercession of Jesus that gracious help, which sets us again before God, perhaps broken-hearted, still before God to whom we confess our sin. Our confession of sin is made to God, not to Jesus in order that He may intercede. His intercession in our behalf always goes on; it precedes us in our return to God. Therefore John does not say, If any man repent, we have an advocate; but he says, “If any man sin,” for repentance in us in itself the result of the intercession of Jesus.

The forgiveness of God restores our soul to the enjoyment of His communion. This effect of the grace of God to us answers to the sprinkling of water upon defiled persons under the law. We have been sprinkled by blood once, and it is on that account that the sprinkling of water can avail to cleanse us. “An advocate” is a defender, one who takes up our cause, and exercises for us the office of protector. The care of the Roman patricians for their clients would give an idea of this office. By granting us a defender God has shewn that He cannot pass over sin with indifference. His fellowship and sin cannot go together.

“With the Father.” John does not say with God, because he is treating of our communion, and not of the mediation which maintains us in the presence of God. This latter subject belongs more especially to the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Jesus Christ the righteous.” The basis of our standing before God is not altered by our fall. Righteousness abides before God, the righteous One is there for us. But there is more.

Verse 2. “He is the propitiation for our sins.” Thus all that is necessary, as an answer to God for us sinners, is found in Jesus. He, who in His own Person is righteousness itself and who, when here below, made propitiation for our sins, is in the presence of God; and He intervenes for us by an intercession founded upon righteousness and propitiation, this double basis of our salvation. Otherwise it would be impossible for God to look upon a creature who has sinned. The words, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world,” appear to be spoken to souls who have not yet peace. Are they addressed to Christians? Yes, it is to Christians that John writes these things; only in speaking thus he has no particular state of soul in view.

John gives us in this Epistle an expose of great principles which he lays down absolutely, leaving aside all details of application. Doubtless experience brings in various modifications; still they in no wise affect the original force of these principles. For instance, I say, Our meeting room is open to every one, anybody may enter it. But here is a man who cannot enter because he is lame. Will the exception to be made in his case alter what I have said? No. So is it also with divine things. If we only possessed the great principles of the truth of God in the measure of their application to man, we should never really possess them at all. It is indispensable to discern this absolute way of setting forth the truth of God in order to understand the Epistle of John. “Not for ours only.” Ours are the sins of us, Jews. Such I believe to be the sense of this word “ours,” according to a passage in his third Epistle (v. 8), in which John identifies himself with the Jews.

This verse 2 concludes the exposition of the general truths which constitute the Epistle. In what follows we shall find a development of experimental proofs of these truths, with a view to shew what are the evidences of the reality of divine life in the saints. Two proofs are adduced, namely, love and righteousness. But before considering these, John presents another practical feature, namely, obedience, which also proceeds from the divine life in us, and which is necessary to our intercourse with God.

Verses 3, 4. “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.” If purity is required from man, when it is a question of the nature of the God he is in communion with, obedience marks our position in the presence of His sovereign majesty. The submission of man is due to God because He is sovereign. The grace, which has brought us back to Him and made us happy, has, at the same time, set us in a state of dependence upon Him, which dependence is expressed by obedience. There are certain commandments to be kept, and our obedience to them testifies that we know God. Jesus, in whom is seen the perfect Man, walked in entire dependence upon God. His life was not only activity in good, but above all things was characterised by obedience; He was subject to another, even His Father. God alone does what is good without obeying.

“His commandments” are not the tables of the law, but the various communications by which the Lord has shewn the perfection of His divine Person. The words, the precepts, and commandments which emanated from His mouth, were the expression of the life manifested by Him here below, and they become the light which now directs that life in us. The law says, “This do and thou shalt live.” On this footing no one has obeyed: but Christ, who was the life, obeyed. Being in Christ through grace we inherit this position; we receive from Him a life freely given, which places us and leads us in the path of obedience. Christ who obeyed is our life. What He was upon earth directs His life in us. His commandments are based upon the life which He has given us.

Verses 5, 6. “But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected.”13 There is something further than keeping His commandments, there is also keeping His word, and the divine communications in the latter case go beyond the former. Having spoken of the blessing which accompanies obedience to the Lord’s commandments, John next shews the extent of the blessing when it is a question of answering to greater communications. By His word God leads us into the thoughts of His love. And as in Jesus, the impulses of the heart were in harmony with the thoughts of the Father, so also in our case, through the life which He has given us, we find ourselves so very near to God that we know His will and His good pleasure. Blessed fruits of the divine sap circulate in us. Sweet and glorious blessing, in which is unfolded for the redeemed of the Lord the greatness of their joy in the knowledge of God!

“He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” It does not say, ought to be what he was, but “ought to walk even as he walked.” We could not be what Jesus was, but He has left us an example and we follow in His steps.

This verse presents a peculiarity which is also found in other passages of the Epistle. “Abideth in him” means “abideth in God,” “walk even as he walked” means “as Christ walked.” John uses the words, “he,” “him,” without much attention to the reciprocity of terms. He so sees in Christ the expression of God Himself, for Christ is God manifest in the flesh, that he can use the same word for both without confusion.

Abide in him—God. As is the case with visible things that our impressions are formed by the circumstances in which we are found, so is it in spiritual matters, as to our abiding in God. For instance, if we inhabit a damp house, we soon feel it; but if in an agreeable residence, we feel it also. We are in God even as the chick is in its egg. These pictures but feebly set forth our grand privilege of abiding in God. Yes; He is our hiding-place, and there we taste the joys of divine affections.

Verses 7, 8. We have already seen something about the commandments of Christ; here are some further unfoldings given in view of seducers. The commandments which we receive from him is old and new at the same: old, because it is the “life which was with the Father,” “that which was from the beginning”; new, because the life, which was in Christ, has been communicated to us in time, “which thing is true in him and in you.” In this old and new commandment we have the foundation and development of all that is good. It is not addressed to us as from without by a Christ witnessing for God on the earth, but it is the action of a new life which he has put within us; it is a commandment hanging upon the union of life, sentiments, and habits, manifested in Jesus, and common to the family of God. Yet it is a commandment having for us all the authority of divine will; we are to be filled with the will of God. “The true light now shineth.” The gospel reveals God; the law and the ordinances, and the whole of that system in which God remained concealed, have been eclipsed by its light.

As we have already noticed, above and beyond all its other effects, the divine life in man stamps upon him a character of obedience. But love and righteousness are the proper activity of that life which is the nature of God Himself. The life was manifested in Jesus in both those characters, and they are reproduced in us. The presence or absence of these features marks the two families, that of God, and that of the adversary.14

Verses 9-11. The love of the brethren. This love is the proof that we possess divine life. It dwells in light. There is no agreement between the light and sentiments opposed to this love.

Verses 12-27. These verses form a parenthesis in which John addresses communications to the saints, suited to the various degrees of the development of life in them. In this address John sees the saints divided into three classes, and he designates them as fathers, young men, and little children.

Verse 12. Before touching upon these three classes, the apostle puts forth a communication addressed to them all: “I write unto you, children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.” Evidently John is writing, on behalf of God, to persons that are accepted in grace. Unless man has entered into this condition of grace, God has no relationship with him. We also gather from this that the forgiveness of sins is the portion of the Christian, independently of all progress in spiritual life.

“Children” (teknia) is an endearing term used by John to the saints; spoken also by our Lord when He said, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God.” Mark 10:24. This expression runs through the whole Epistle. But in verses 13 and 18, where the moral classes are referred to, the words “little children “are represented by the word paidia which occurs only in these two verses. John speaks twice to each of the three classes.

Verse 13. In the first instance he briefly states what belongs to each of them. Verses 14-27: Here he enters into developments.

“Fathers.” By this designation John points out that state of soul in which Christ is everything. Christ is known as He is, as He was manifested from the beginning, and in Him a blessed portion is possessed. It is the fruit of Christian experience. The time comes when the deceptions of life have vanished, and when the world has nothing attractive to the eye. The knowledge of Him, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, fills and possesses the soul. To such John writes the same thing twice, “Fathers, I have written to you, because ye have known him that is from the beginning,” v. 13, 14. There is nothing else to say to those to whom Christ is everything. The conflicts that the young man sustains result in bringing him also into this state of soul when Christ will be everything to him.

“Young men.” This is the stage in which the spiritual life puts forth its energy against the world. For them a struggle has commenced, and conflicts are sustained, but they will be followed by the soul’s rest in Christ. John says to them, “Ye have overcome the wicked one. Ye are strong and the word of God abideth in you.” The secret of their strength was in their immediate dependence upon Him who is strong, and the word was the instrument by which this strength was exercised. But we see (v. 15-17), it will not do to lay down the weapons before the battle is over. The apostle adds, “Love not the world… all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” When mentioning the elements of the world, John says, “is not of the Father”; he could have equally said, “is not of Christ”; but he says “of the Father,” in order to go back to the source of all. Christ is of the Father, the world is not.

“Little children.” It is the earliest state, infancy of Christian life. At this first stage of spiritual life the Father is known, the Spirit of adoption has been received, and there is consciousness of being a child of God— “One God, the Father,” 1 Cor. 8:6. Such is the first ray of light received by faith after reconciliation with God. In verse 13 John says to these little children, “Ye have known the Father.” But in verses 18-27 he puts them on their guard against the antichrists.

It would not be judged wise, in our days, to be speaking of the antichrists to babes in the faith. Later on, one might think, would be a better time to speak to them of prophecy and of the antichrists. Certainly, if it were only a question of theories, and indeed, in that case, better never to speak of them at all. But the word of God is practical, in prophecy as in everything else. It treats of the antichrists as a matter affecting the walk of the saints. The antichrists have come! let the saints discern them and avoid them.

Verse 18. “As ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists: whereby we know that it is the last time.” The existence of antichrists marks the last days of Christianity and proves their commencement in John’s time.

On the subject of the Antichrist, the apostle adds in verse 22, “that he denieth that Jesus is the Christ … denieth the Father and the Son.” These are two aspects of apostasy in which we see Antichrist; first, uniting with Jewish unbelief, secondly, rejecting Christianity. The word gives the Antichrist an essentially religious character; the testimony of the prophets agrees with the New Testament on this point. It is also important to note this word in verse 23, “Whosoever denieth the Son hath not the Father,” for many who reject Christ pretend not to reject the Father.

Verses 20, 21. It is touching to see the way in which John proceeds in endeavouring to shelter the babes in the faith from the danger of the seducers. Their weak condition claimed this aid; but, in rendering it, John’s first care is to remind them of what they are through grace: You have been anointed by the Holy Ghost, you know the truth.

Verse 24. More than this, he reminds them of the first truths of the gospel, and urges them to hold to them as to a sheet-anchor. “Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son and in the Father.”

Verse 27. And again, whilst teaching them he adds, “But the anointing which ye have received of him, abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you.” As a servant of God, and being also led to it by Christian affection, he bestows his care on them; still the saints, yea even babes in the faith, are responsible to keep themselves from evil, seeing they are sealed of the Holy Ghost, and John desires not to weaken that responsibility. “As the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.”15

“Ye shall abide in it” would be as correct, and indeed more grammatical; still I believe we should read “in him.”

Verse 28. John resumes the thread interrupted from verse 12, and brings us again to the experimental proofs of divine life in us. It yet remains to speak of righteousness as a proof of this life, and then to present further unfoldings upon these proofs combined. Verse 28 serves as a connecting link. “And now, children, abide in him, that when he shall appear we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.” To abide in Christ is to be continually drawing one’s strength from Him, depending upon Him, and remaining faithful to him. See John 15. “That… we may not be ashamed.” It is we, the apostles. This interpretation of the passage is justified by a quotation from the second Epistle (v. 8), “Look to yourselves that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.” The apostles laboured to maintain the work they had wrought, and of which they would reap the fruits in the day of Christ. This thought of the result of their labours in the glory was familiar to the apostle. Paul says: “That I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain,” Phil. 2:16.

Verse 29 and chapter 3:1-9 present righteousness. “Ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.” John reasons thus, As the fruits of life are there, necessarily the life must be there also.

Chapter 3.

Verses 1, 2. From the words “born of him “in the previous verse, John draws the conclusion that we are children of God, and enumerates some of our privileges as such. “Born of him “; then we are His children! “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons [children] of God; therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not… it doth not yet appear what we shall be… when he shall appear, we shall be like him,” etc. “It knew him not” signifies knew not Christ, although the commencement of the sentence speaks of the Father. It is the same language as in Revelation 22:3, “the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall serve him, and they shall see his face.” John says, “his face,” in the singular, yet he is speaking of God and of the Lamb.

“We shall be like him.” Our likeness to Christ then is the result of a present privilege, that of having life in Christ, as Paul expresses it when saying, “Christ, who is our life.” We shall be like Christ, but such as He is now with the Father. In the same way our privilege of seeing Him will be seeing Him as He is now.16 Surely we shall reign with Him, but we shall receive neither the special glory, nor the attributes proper to the Son of man, for they belong to Jesus only.

Verses 3-6. Christ Himself is the measure of the Christian’s sanctification. The hope of seeing Jesus in His glory makes us desire to be like Him now. “Every man that hath this hope in him, purifieth himself, even as he is pure. In him is no sin … whosoever abideth in him sinneth not.” Thus our hope is linked with practical righteousness.

Verse 4. “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law.” The true version reads: “Whosoever practiseth sin, practiseth also lawlessness.” “Transgresseth also the law,” and “committeth iniquity,” render the Greek imperfectly. If it were said, “practiseth lawlessness,” it would be nearer the Greek, which is lawlessness.

Verses 7, 8. Let us notice the different manner in which John speaks of him who practises righteousness and of him who practises sin. Of the first he says that he “is righteous, even as he [Christ] is righteous.” This indicates the state of a person owing to the possession of a nature received, and consequently an abiding state. Of the second, John says: “Is of the devil,” which signifies, he receives his disposition from the wicked one. The enemy may exert an action upon man, but he cannot impart himself. God alone can communicate His nature. We are “partakers of the divine nature.”

Verse 9. “Whosoever is born of God doth not practise sin.” In interpreting this passage some make the words “commit sin,” mean “live in sin,” but this weakens its bearing. These words have reference to something absolute, to the nature of Christ within us. So John does not say, That which, but” whosoever is born of God,” thereby meaning a being and not a thing, and that being does not practise sin. Doubtless not to practise sin is the characteristic of the child of God. The Christian does not live in sin, and this because he has a holy nature which spiritually constitutes the individual.

Verses 10-18. To complete the subject we now get some developments upon the two great principles combined; righteousness and love. The two leading features of the child of God are that he practiseth righteousness and loveth his brother. By contrast, he that practiseth not righteousness and loveth not his brother is not of God. “His brother.” Has one, who is not born of God, a brother? Here again we must follow abstractions. The principles remain, although there may not be all the elements of application.

Verse 12. The opposite of the child of God is seen in Cain. He slew his brother (evidence of his hatred), and wherefore? because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.

Verses 13-15 are application. The brethren—and by this word John designates all the children of God—are hated by the world, even as Abel was hated by Cain. On their part there is love, and this love is the proof that they have passed from death to life.

Verse 16. But love is seen in and learnt from Christ. We know love through Him who has been the most complete proof of the love of God, for moved by this love Christ gave Himself.

Verses 16-18 are application. The love of Christ in us should lead us even to lay down our lives for the brethren. It can also shew itself by lesser actions, and can lead us to make our brethren partakers with us of any of this world’s goods that we may possess.

Verses 19-23. As obedience introduced the subject of the proofs that we are partakers of divine life, so now it concludes this also. In loving the brethren we not only have evidence that we are of the truth, but we assure our hearts before God, love being the keeping of the commandment which we have received to love one another (v. 23). And more, being obedient to His commandment, whatsoever we ask, we receive.

Verse 19. “Assure our hearts before him.” The subject in hand is evidently a question of liberty with God, and not of salvation or condemnation.

Verse 20. “God is greater than our heart.” He knows us better than, we know ourselves. Immediately our heart allows something that cannot stand before God, our communion and liberty with Him suffer. Now sometimes we know not where to discover what has unsettled our intercourse with God. What has done it? After a little searching we shall discover that our hearts are tolerating some elements of evil which God sees and will not allow.

Verse 22. “Whatsoever we ask we receive of him.” This truth appertains to the absolute principles of the new man, for our prayers are not always answered. On one occasion Paul prayed three times and was not heard. But the prayer of the new man is always according to Christ who could say to His Father: “Thou nearest me always.” Verse 22 supposes such a prayer as we address to God when we are walking in His ways; and not that which bursts from the heart when we find ourselves in exceptional circumstances. We can understand why, in Gethsemane, Jesus requested that He might not have to drink the cup which involved the hiding of God’s face.

Verse 23. “His commandment” signifies both the commandment of God and the commandment of Christ; for God it is who has given us the command to believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ,” and Christ that to “love one another.” This is another instance of the way in which John speaks without distinguishing between God and Christ. The exposition of the experimental proofs of divine life in us are concluded with this verse.

Verse 24. We now enter upon a new subject. Two great privileges of the saints, expressed by John in these words, “He that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him and he in him,” correspond to the obedience which maintains our hearts in a state of liberty before God.

Here, as in other passages which we have already looked at, the word he is indefinite; it applies to God and to Christ indiscriminately. Abide in Him may mean, abide in God, or abide in Christ. Still by the light which chapter 4 sheds upon the subject, we can see that these words signify rather, that we abide in God, and God abides in us. This expresses the immensity of the grace which God has given us in granting us life and a place in communion with Himself.

To abide in God is, as we remarked in chapter 2, the privilege of resting on the bosom of God Himself, there tasting divine affections; a privilege alas! too little enjoyed by our souls, for we know not how at all times to fall back upon God in order to escape from the dearth of the wilderness. We enjoy communion with the Father and the Son; but we have more, we abide in God.

God abiding in us indicates a different blessing from that of our abiding in God. God abides in us through the communication of His nature. He is Himself thus the element of our being. “He has given us of his Spirit,” chap. 4:13. We have received the life manifested by the Son in this world, and the received Spirit is God Himself in us.

This last privilege is now mentioned for the first time in this Epistle, and in speaking it, John gives the proof of its reality in these words: “And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.” Although he has just mentioned two privileges, he only adduces the proof of the latter, which is introductory to the former, and which is the subject he is about to unfold.

Chapter 4.

Verses 1-6. Here, before pursuing the subject, John stops again to point out the seducers. In the preceding chapter (v. 24) he has spoken of the gift of the Spirit of God, but there are also false spirits, and it is well to put the saints on their guard against them.

Verse 1. “Try the spirits.” The thing to be judged according to this exhortation, is not whether a man is convened, but whether a man who prophesies is speaking by the Spirit of God or by a spirit of demons. How are we to know the false spirits? Here is the touchstone.

Verses 2, 3. “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God.” By this test we discern the Spirit which is of God, and that which is not of God. A man who prophesies by the Spirit of God also confesses Jesus Christ come in the flesh. He not merely confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh, but he confesses Jesus Himself—the Jesus who came in flesh. To confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is to acknowledge a truth; to confess Jesus Christ come in flesh is to acknowledge the Person and lordship of Jesus.

It is not uncommon for the agents of the enemy, when putting forth false doctrines, to make use of the word of God, although they despise it. They quote it when it suits their purpose,17 and when it is inconvenient they despise and neglect it. All error proceeds from the devil, and he uses every agency to cause it to spread. And yet, although all error comes from him, it does not suffice that a doctrine be false to decide that he who puts it forth speaks by an evil spirit. In cases where there has been evidence that a demon was speaking, besides the excitement of the speaker, there has been an astonishing promptness of effect, and a wonderful power of persuasion.18 Alas! the flesh is always ready to give an ear to Satan, but it resists the teaching of the Holy Ghost. Besides, when the Holy Ghost works in man, He proceeds by appropriating the truth to the individual; and this result is not obtained very promptly.

As soon as the demon is discerned, there is but one course— to treat the demon as a demon. If this course be adopted, he will be found powerless before the name of Jesus; but if we resort to any other way, if we yield to human considerations, if we are amiable with the agents of the enemy, we shall soon find ourselves in weakness before Satan: God not being able to be with us in the course we have chosen.

In the presence of these dangers how precious is the word of God to faith! It is the word which enlightens us that we may discern the adversary and error, and which shews us the path which God has marked out for faithfulness in such circumstances. Let us cleave to His word, with an upright heart, walking in lowliness before the Lord; and nothing can cause us to stumble on our way: God is faithful, He keeps His own, He will keep the youngest and the weakest. But without this submission to God and to His word, whatever beautiful sentiments we may express, or whatever clever method we may adopt, we shall have to feel the power of the enemy.

Verse 6. “We are of God” (we, the apostles); “he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us, hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” The words of the apostles are authoritative. Those to whom these delegates of the Lord spoke were under the responsibility of receiving the word, because it came from an apostle. The refusal to submit would shew that the person was of the world, and following the spirit of error. Our responsibility is the same, for we possess the epistles written by the apostles. Having given these words of warning and teaching respecting the spirits, John resumes the subject commenced in chapter 3:24.

Verses 7-12. “God dwelling in us” is a privilege which derives all its value from the love of God in which we share.

Verses 7, 8. “Let us love one another; for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God… for God is love.” The source of love is in God only, it is God Himself. But through infinite grace this love finds room in a human heart and renders it capable of loving. It is no question here of human affections, but of the love of God, the presence of which in the heart of a man proves that the man is born of God and knows God. How immense is the privilege which raises us thus to the blessing which belongs to the nature of a God of love!

Among the number of blessings which have fallen to our lot, there are several of a kind different from the one we have just spoken of; for instance, those which flow from the counsels of God; the portion of the church as united to Christ, the inheritance promised to the saints, blessings which are unfolded in Paul’s epistles. But in the Epistle of John we get an order of privileges more connected with the Person of God Himself—with His nature, of which by grace we are partakers.

Verses 9-12. God has manifested His love by sending His only-begotten Son through whom He has given us life, found a propitiation for us, and by whom He has revealed Himself in love. These verses set forth the Christian privileges brought by Jesus at His first coming. Here are some details.

Verses 9, 10. The love of God which now moves in our souls was first shewn by acts outside us. It wrought in our behalf when as yet there was nothing but sin in us. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Thus our privilege of feeling our hearts filled with the love of God flows from the love God had for us when we were but sinners; and this love has become ours by the possession of an object outside ourselves. If with respect to this privilege, we had only the subjective side, that is, the love in us, it would be pure mysticism; but there is also the objective side, the love of God for us. Thus there is no room for that self-worship which is such a strong characteristic of religious sentimentalism.

Verses 11, 12, are blessed effects of the presence and action of the love of God in us. Thereby God Himself dwells in us and His love is perfected in us. To what glorious truths does this link us! We read in the Gospel of John, chapter 1:18, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” And in this verse of the Epistle, “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The same Christ who revealed God in the world dwells in the saints in whom He also reveals God. Such is the privilege of those whose life Christ is. “His love is perfected in us.” When love is in exercise in the intercourse of saints, God has His place in this intercourse; He is there, for He Himself is love. And if God is present producing His love in others, it is a perfected love.

Verse 13. “Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” As in chapter 3:24, so again in this verse we find the two privileges joined together: our dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us. “Of his spirit.” God has communicated His nature to us, He dwells in us. The church as a body is also the dwelling-place of God, on account of the personal presence of the Holy Ghost in the body. The church, being the dwelling-place of the Holy Ghost, is highly blessed. This is not the place to unfold that blessing, pleasant as it would be to do so. Only for the sake of the subject now under consideration let us remark that the Holy Ghost manifested His presence in the church at the beginning by various signs; there were gifts of healings, of tongues, and other workings which all contributed to the glory of the presence of God in the midst of His saints. These glorious manifestations were not hindered by the presence of any even if unconverted.19 But when we learn from John that God dwells in us and that we know this privilege because God hath given us of His Spirit, we have a very different blessing before us; one that is inherent to the divine nature in us, a privilege which is inseparable from conversion, since it is conversion itself in its very essence.

We dwell in God and God dwells in us; this is the order of these privileges in our spiritual experience. Being conscious by the Spirit that we dwell in God, we thereby know that God dwells in us. It is the order followed in verse 13 which we are now considering. But when these privileges are looked upon in connection with the testimony of God and with divine operations, they are reversed: God dwells in us and we in Him. This is the subject set forth in the two following verses.

Verses 14, 15. “And we have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” God gives us to believe the testimony and at the same time takes up His abode in us; this is one of the first of blessings on which others are built up. Thus as a simple result of this grace we dwell in God, we have our refuge in Him, we taste of His peace, His joy, and His rest.

When John says, “whosoever shall confess,” he sees life in its earliest fruits, and he finds in these another proof of God’s dwelling in us and of our dwelling in Him. What privileges we possess by faith! We have drawn from that fulness, from that ocean of life; and, after having received for ourselves, we become channels of communication to others.

Verse 16 is a summary of the preceding verses: “We have known and believed the love that God hath to us”; it is privilege of faith. “He that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him”; it is experimental blessing.

Verse 17. Read “Herein is love with us made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world.” Having given the proofs of the love of God for us, and having shewn that we have known and believed His love, John, in this verse, seeks to shew the immense blessing which the love of God sheds upon us. His love, which was manifested by the gift of the Son, is perfected in the grace which makes us to be such as Jesus is. We are “as he is” by the fact of having in us the life of Jesus glorified. The life which shone forth in Jesus when He came out of the grave (after having exhausted the judgment of God, abolished sin, and conquered death), divine life in man has been communicated to us, and it places us before God in the same standing as that of Jesus Himself.

It is not an imputed privilege; the love of God which constitutes it is a love that is perfected in us. We have received from God this life against which there is no judgment, for it is divine, and we have received it through Him who went under the judgment in our stead. Such is the love of God perfected in us. The effect of this grace is to give our souls full confidence as to the day of judgment. Evidently there could not be a place for us in that day more excellent than that of finding ourselves in the same position as the judge Himself. Verse 18. Again, what sentiments become ours in our daily life! No more fear; the love of God perfected in us has cast it out.

Verses 19-21. John puts the reality of the love of God in us to a counter-test: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.” The proof that our love is really of God is in this; that we love the brethren, not on account of the satisfaction found in so doing, but because they are of God. We cannot love a person without taking an interest in his children. But suppose the case of a father having three sons; I love two of them, this does not testify that I love their father, for if I did, I should love the three sons. These principles which act as counter-proofs are very useful; we often need their test.

Chapter 5.

Verse 1. Brotherly love being established, the question arises: Who is my brother? We get for an answer, “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.” This is a brother, we owe him love.

Verse 2. But brotherly love is also in its turn submitted to a counter-test: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.” Let us notice that love of the brethren, which was adduced as a proof of our love to God in chapter 4:20, is now the point to be proved. This is what the schoolmen would term reasoning in a vicious circle; but life and love are beyond their sphere. True love is accompanied by obedience. The love which leads us to love the children of God, for God’s sake, could not love them and at the same time incite them to things which displease their Father. Would it be love to a man to set his children an example of disobedience? It would be loving neither him nor his children. Disobedience is never love. Christ, who is perfect love, also shewed perfect obedience.

Verses 4, 5. But here is an obstacle; the world renders obedience difficult. When we feel its influence, the commandments of God seem grievous. But, on the other hand, love escapes that influence and remains obedient. Thus love is in conflict with the world, but faith is there to help. “This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith.”

Unspeakable mystery of the knowledge of Jesus! a crucified One is the Son of God! Faith knows this Saviour rejected by the world, and clings to Him. The name of Jesus has an all-powerful attraction for faith; and finding a blessed portion in Jesus it joyfully accepts the place of the Saviour here below. What can the world do against the faith that sees things thus? It is not astonishing that faith in Jesus should be in conflict with the world; for if a crucified one be the Son of God, what an overthrow of the order of things in belonging to this world! But this rejected One has overcome the world and faith shares in His victory.

Verses 6-12. Up to this point of the epistle we have had to consider the great principles of the truth concerning life. Before ending John here touches upon the question of the testimony of God to which the communication of this life to sinners corresponds. We have first the witnesses: the Spirit, the water, and the blood.

Verse 6. “This is he who came by (dia) water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by (en) water only, but by (en) water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness.” The testimony of the water and of the blood is twice expressed in this verse, but with a different Greek preposition each time. He came by (dia) water and blood; and then He came in (en) water and blood; that is to say, in the power of the water and of the blood. The former of these expressions (dia) indicates the character in which Jesus came here below; the latter (en), the power displayed by Him according to that character. Jesus came in a character of purification and expiation: “by water and blood.” He has wrought according to that character, and has accomplished purification and expiation in water and blood. Although the water and the blood both express the death of Christ, they set forth two results of that death. We are cleansed by the water of death (sanctification), and we are also cleansed by blood (justification). From this it follows that, the death of Christ giving its character and value to our sanctification, we reckon ourselves dead to sin even as Christ died for sin. I do not know if we pay sufficient heed to this purifying power of the death of Christ, whereby we are freed from the power of sin now.

“And it is the Spirit that beareth witness.” The Spirit of God, present here below, is also a witness of the grace of life which is in Jesus. But it is in virtue of the death of Christ that the Holy Ghost has come down. Thus purification, expiation, and the gift of the Holy Ghost, are privileges which exist for us only in virtue of a dead Christ.

Verses 7, 8 omit a portion of these two verses, and read, “For there are three that bear record, the Spirit and the water and the blood: and these three agree in one.”20 Three witnesses, but only one testimony.

Verses 9, 10. “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself”; for God imparts life to him who believes. As to the witness, we find again the two things which we have noticed throughout the Epistle: the internal and the external, the subjective and the objective side, experience and faith. Christ, who is the object of the testimony in the world, dwells in the saints. We thus understand how the witness of God is greater than that of men.

Verses 11,12. After becoming acquainted with the witnesses, we learn what their testimony is. It is this: “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Life was not in the first Adam; it is in Jesus only, but it comes to us through death; this the three witnesses—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—affirm.

Verse 13. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God, that ye may know that ye have eternal life.”21 I am not writing to you, says John, to bring you the blessings of the testimony of God, as though you were not in possession of them, but to remind you that you have them, in order that you may be forearmed against the false teachers when they call your privileges in question.

Verses 14, 15. “If we ask anything according to his will he heareth us.” Our souls are sometimes much exercised before God as to prayer; for God, who in His goodness grants us all things that are good for us, reserves to Himself the choice, the means, and the time. However we have the comfort of knowing that God always hears us. He is not absent nor too high to listen to our prayers. But more than this: “we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” What mercy! God is willing to hear the requests which such feeble creatures as ourselves send up to Him. God perhaps does not answer at once. This exercise of patience is blessed to our souls, and is often more salutary than an immediate answer. It acts upon our intercourse with God, it moulds it, and teaches us dependence. It is well for us to know that we should not pray with the idea of dictating to God. But the faith which has prayed nevertheless feels sure that God has heard, and this confidence consoles and sustains.

Verses 16, 17. What is this sin unto death? It is sin, but sin aggravated by particular circumstances. The sin of Ananias was a lie which the surrounding circumstances rendered more serious. Every sin may become a sin unto death.

Verses 18, 20. These three verses comprise the great principles of the Epistle. They form a sort of conclusion. But here, as in the body of the Epistle, John expresses himself in a way calculated to sustain faith in spite of the sowers of doubts. “We know,” says he, what? We know what is the life which we have received from God. We know that the wicked one is in the world. We know that the Son of God is come, that He is true and that we are in Him. Yes! on all these points we know where we are. It is a last shaft which, in concluding, John levels at the corrupters of the faith. Verse 19. “For the whole world lieth in wickedness,” read “The whole world lieth in the wicked one.”

Verse 20. Notice the chain of thoughts in this verse. The Son has come and has given us to know God as “him that is true.” We are in Him that is true because we are in His Son Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ is God Himself, the true God. He is also eternal life.

Verse 21. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” that is, from all that might come in between you and God.


The grace administered through John’s ministry appertains to the individual blessing of saints. It is the communication of divine life to man, a blessing which exists at all times, and which belongs to the saints, whatever may be the state of God’s people. This apostle is not occupied with the church, with that which as a whole, forms the body of Christ. This mystery was entrusted to Paul.

Compared with John, the apostle of the Gentiles is seen in different circumstances. Paul, being a chosen vessel for that work of sovereign grace, which by the power of the Holy Ghost, gathers a church here below composed of Jews and Gentiles, united in one body to Christ in heaven, manifested extraordinary energy which was crowned with success. But the testing time came, Paul was imprisoned, his ministry was cut short, all forsook him. Disaffection appeared, and later on the unity was broken. The decline, which commenced then, has continued and increased until our days.

What will be the end of it? The word holds out no hope of a return here below to the first state of blessing. The tares which have been sown in the field must remain until the harvest. But if there is no hope of restoration for the system, yet the grace of fife remains and is not inactive. This life, the revelation and the resources of which were the chief object of John’s ministry, still flows on; and it may be said that it is by means of this life that the Lord has intervened when all was about to fail in Christianity.

13 Here we notice another example of those absolute principles which are found in the Epistle of John, “In him verily is the love of God perfected.” Perhaps there is no one in the state of soul indicated by the words, “keepeth his word;” nevertheless the principle remains: “the love of God perfected in us “is what corresponds to such a state.

14 Far from being an occasion of doubt for the saints, these characteristic features are, on the contrary, a reason for confidence. John used them, firstly, to reassure the simple, in whom some had endeavoured to instil doubts, secondly, to help to the discovery of seducers and to convict them of falsehood. For instance, a man makes a great display of knowledge, but he lacks the love of the brethren. By this we know that he is in darkness, and we avoid him.

15 John goes farther in his second Epistle; he there exhorts not to receive the bearers of false doctrine. He still refers to the same class of individuals, that is, those who denied Christ come in flesh. He describes them as not abiding in the doctrine of Christ. This is the evil the saints had to contend with. There might be erroneous elements mixed with the faith of some persons, and whilst being a cause for vigilance and care on the part of those who are with them, this need not hinder their walking together. But if anyone sins against “the doctrine of Christ,” that is to say, against the doctrine which concerns Christ Himself, and which is the basis of the faith, he is not to be received.v

16 This point raises the question whether we shall see God in the brightness of His essential glory. The scripture answers: “dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” In another place speaking of the heavenly Jerusalem, it says, “The glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light [lamp] thereof.” It follows from this that it is outside the inaccessible light that the God of glory reveals Himself to man, and that this revelation is made through Jesus.

17 All heretics conceal their doctrines. In our days we have had proofs of this in the Irvingites and Mormons. It seems almost incredible that there should be any being on earth who could accept the absurdities of these latter. What success is to be attained over man by pandering to his flesh, and what a solemn example of Satan’s power!

18 This was the case among the Irvingites.

19 Hebrews 6:4, 5.

20 Several words included in verses 7 and 8 are not to be found in most MSS, and are not admitted in the best Greek editions of the New Testament. We follow these editions. These are the words to be suppressed: “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth.”

21 Several editions of the New Testament, upon the authority of the principal manuscripts, reject the words we have omitted at the end of this verse; namely, “And that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”