Book traversal links for The Epistles of John
The Epistles of John have evidently a character altogether peculiar to themselves. Christ Himself personally is more before us than in any other of the inspired epistles. Nevertheless there is this difference between the Gospel and the Epistles of John: that his gospel necessarily treats of Christ in a direct and immediate way, and then the provision that He made, when He was about to leave the world and His disciples in it, by the Holy Ghost taking His place down here (these being the two chief subjects of the Gospel of John); in the Epistles, on the other hand, while Christ is still prominent, the main characteristic is to show Christ is in us, as well (so to speak) as Christ in Himself — that it is the self-same life, Christ personally being its full perfect expression. In order to set out this astonishing truth with all clearness, the Epistle opens directly with the Lord, and this as He was manifested in this world. The Gospel begins with Christ before all worlds. Such is not the manner in which the Holy Ghost begins here.
I am aware that some have been disposed to take “That which was from the beginning,” (1 John 1:1) as if it taught the same truth as “In the beginning was the Word.” No doubt there is an allusion, but there is also a marked difference. We gain nothing by forcing scripture: we always lose somewhat. In the Gospel, where Christ Himself directly and immediately is the object, the Holy Ghost starts with revealing His divine subsistence when there was none but God: “The Word was with God,” and lest there should be any question of His glory, “the Word was God” — not the creature. “The same was in the beginning with God.” Thus He had a distinct personal existence, which had been from everlasting. No matter how far one goes back, we may still find the Word, and the Word with God: it is not said exactly with the Father, but with God. We never in scripture find the “Word” coupled with the “Father.” We do find it in what is not scripture, as I shall show before we have done with considering this Epistle. In unquestionable scripture, “the Word” and “God” are correlative, — the “Son” and the “Father.” Man cannot even imitate the word of God without exposing his own weakness.
The Gospel therefore, in order to assert His glory, goes back before all time. And “in the beginning” — no matter where you may ask to place the point within eternity — the Word was there. But this is not at all the object of the Epistle. It is assumed no doubt, but It is to show how truly the life is the very same. It is not union. Life is never confounded with union, though in the Christian closely connected. Union is by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven, but life was before this, whether in Christ personally, or even in us. Christ Himself is our life.
Hence, when flesh had hindered and overlaid the power of the Spirit; when the world was gaining vast influence; when Satan was working with all subtlety to undermine the foundations, the Holy Ghost directs attention to Christ, in whom the life was manifested. In what the Son of God was before entering the world, there could be no instruction for us how the life is to be now displayed in us; and what God looks for, — how by the Holy Ghost He nourishes and exercises us. The weightiest instruction turns on what Christ was here, having to do with man — with Satan — above all, with His God and Father. So have we. Hence, therefore, it is not here, “He was in the beginning with God,” but “That which was from the beginning.”
This is a phrase (
ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς) constantly used as to the manifestation of the one or thing spoken of: it matters not whether it be good or evil. We find the formula used, for instance, of Satan. There is no reference to what he was before he became the devil; there is silence as to his subsistence as an unfallen angel, but when he departed from God, he sins from the beginning. Such is his character as devil: he sinned. As for our Lord Jesus, He was manifested as man here below; but before we hear of what was manifested, John says, “That which was from the beginning.” He had a personal being as man here below — a divine person no doubt, but He took a real place in this world. This seems to be referred to in the expression “which was from the beginning.” Next we have the fact that others are directed towards Him — what we have “heard” about Him — what we have “seen with our eyes.” It was not a mere phantom, but a real person in this world — hence “that which we have looked upon,” or contemplated. Even though from above, He was really an object seen; He was not a passing shadow, but a person, “which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled” (coming down as it were into the closest familiarity) “concerning the word of life.” It will be understood that all these different clauses refer to the Word of life — what was from the beginning about the Word of life: what we have heard about the Word of life: what we have seen, and so on.
“And the life was manifested.” The second verse yet makes the first plainer; for there we find His pre-existence with the Father, when the apostle has stated His manifestation (for that expression “the life was manifested” is a kind of summary of what had been laid down in the preceding verse): “The life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and announce to you that eternal life, which was with the Father.” Now here we have the Son’s eternal being, so that there is no holding it back in this verse. It is supposed and treated of as a known truth; but the present object is to put forward the Lord Jesus as He was displayed in this world; for “it was manifested to us: that which we have seen and heard” (taking up the two verses) “announce we to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” Thus the evident aim here is to show that there has been a manifestation — an adequate personal revelation of God the Father. The only such adequate manifestation was Christ Himself. But it was Christ Himself in this world, a man as truly as any other, though infinitely above man, but a man who displayed what divine life is in all imaginable circumstances. He became a babe, a child, a full-grown man. He grew up subject to His parents; He entered on public life, as before He was traced in the, unobtrusive privacy of His home after the flesh. He is then found confronted with the enemy, going forth in the power of the Spirit, dealing with every kind of pain and sorrow that pressed down humanity, in everything showing out what God is, but in everything also displaying what man ought to have been, and was not — Himself always absolute perfection, but perfection as man in dependence on God.
What, it may be asked, has this to do with us? Everything. It is not true that we only want propitiation, or as guilty sinners to be justified. We want life — eternal life. But have not the children of God eternal life? Certainly, but where shall I look at it? I see a beautiful trait of the divine life in this saint; I see something else sweet, and at the same time humbling to my soul, in another — perhaps where least expected. But in all there is weakness and even positive failure. Who would not confess it? who does not feel it? This, then, after all, is but an unworthy expression of what divine life is, because it is shaded too often and modified by the effect of the world, by the allowance of nature, by a thousand thoughts, feelings, ways, habits which do not savour of Christ. All these things break in upon and mar the perfect outshining of that new life that is communicated to all the children of God. And here is the blessedness of what the Holy Ghost at once ushers in without a single note of preface, — without the smallest allusion to any other person or topic. With Christ before Him, could it be otherwise? There was but one adequate and worthy object of the Holy Ghost, and it was Christ. Neither was it at all requisite to say for whom John was inspired to write thus. Of necessity, Christ was for His own. For whom could Christ be portrayed,. if not for the Christian? But then the suitable homage to Christ was to bring into prominence none but Christ Himself; and so we find the epistle of John opening in a way unlike any other. There may be some approach to analogy in the remarkable manner the apostle Paul writes to the Hebrews. He who writes and those who are written to are in the back ground, that God may unfold His ancient oracles about the Messiah His Son. But in Hebrews, the reason is rather the grace that condescended to Jewish weakness. In John, the reason is the all-eclipsing glory of Him, the Eternal Life, who deigns in grace and by redemption to be our life. It was John’s allotted province thus to bring Christ before those that are His; and he has done so in the power of the Holy Ghost, and with a wisdom that proves itself altogether divine to him who has ears to hear.
Through such a revelation as this the great comfort is that God is showing His children, conscious of their own weakness, what in this respect grace has given them in Christ — what the very life is that they have received. Often cast down and groaning in the feeling of how little they manifest the life of Christ, and needing to know what His life — their life — Christ — is in its own excellency, they are directed to Himself. In its perfection it is seen in Christ alone.
This it is therefore that opens our epistle; and what is the effect? “These things which we have seen and heard we announce to you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.” The apostles had fellowship with the Son of God, and they were particularly chosen out, as we find in the Lord’s prayer (the proper prayer of the Lord, not that which is commonly so called in Matt. 6, Luke 11, blessed as it is, but in John 17) For it is evident that the apostles have a singularly distinguished place assigned them. But Christians also are immediately concerned; for there is no doubt that others were to be brought in and to believe through their word. And thus they are expressly the objects of their Lord’s communications to the Father.
Here, too, the design was that others should have fellowship with the Son of God: the first favoured ones were not to keep it to themselves, but to spread abroad the riches of His grace. As we see in John 17 that others were to believe through the apostles’ word, so here John acts on the intimation himself The object is, “that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” It is with “the Father,” because he communicates what He loves best. Never was anything, or one in His sight, so precious as the manifestation of His own Son in manhood here below. It was what opened the heavens, so to speak; it was what caused the Father’s voice to be heard; and this in various critical circumstances, where it might have seemed that a dishonouring shade hung over the Anointed of God. But not so; it was but an appearance in the eyes of dimly seeing man — Christ was perfection always. Take, for instance, the scene of His baptism; or, again, the mount of transfiguration. Our fellowship then is with the Father. He shares with us the object of His own delight.
But our fellowship is no less with His Son Jesus Christ, who lets us into the secret of the Father’s love, and gives a place with Himself to His own, as far as it could be communicated to the creature. “Our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
And what is the designed effect? Fulness of joy. “These things write we unto you that your joy may be full.” If any believer, then, looks at Jesus as He was here below, and if the effect on his heart is to take away from the spring of joy in his soul, or to fail in ministering divine joy, it is clear that he has misapprehended God’s own object and love. He has not interpreted aright the revelation of the Son of God. Now there are many that do so read the gospels. They derive far more joy from that which Paul brings before them in Romans 5 or 8. One can understand this at first. Ought it to be so always? There are states no doubt where the clearing and consolidating chapters in the epistle to the Romans supply the requisite food of the soul. Nor could one in the least desire to weaken this, still less to set one part of scripture against or above another. But while assuredly in the first learning of salvation it is of consequence that we should be built up in the good news of grace that God sends us through the work of the Lord Jesus, the object of God in settling us on redemption is to make us free to enjoy the Son and the Father. We are not to be arrested along the way however precious, but to enjoy Himself who has reconciled us by Jesus Christ, — to appreciate and adore our God and Father who has manifested His glory in Christ His Son. Short of this we cannot rightly stop. We may pause midway, but we ought to be going on until we can rest perfectly in this blessed communion of love — fellowship “with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”
The effect then, I repeat, is fulness of joy. And mark, all this is simply from the manifestation of grace in Jesus Christ the Lord. There is not one question of ourselves, but the simplest receiving what God has brought and given us in His own Son; the intended issue is the overflowing of joy in the Holy Ghost.
But if we had a manifestation, there is also a message. The manifestation, with its connections and result, was given us in the first four verses. The message begins from the fifth verse. If you have this life of Christ, if I too have it, if we who believe are brought thus into fellowship with the Father and with the Son Jesus Christ, — if we possess the wondrous place of being (so to speak) in the family circle, and the most intimate affections of our God and Father through the Son of His love, I cannot be there, nor you, without the creating of a certain demand on our souls by virtue of the divine nature of which grace has made us alike partakers. No doubt love is the spring, but it is in truth; and the God who thus brings us by His own Son into the present enjoyment of life everlasting makes the soul sensible of the antagonism between the state of nature and of all around us with God Himself. But mark the grace of God. not a word of that whatever until fulness of joy is established, and this solely by the gift of Jesus the Son of God to us, and eternal life in Him. But having given us the joy, now He turns us back, as it were, and gives the eye inwardly to discern as those enabled to see according to God, — to judge all that is of self, and consequently all false pretensions wherever they may be. It could not, ought not to be otherwise. We can afford to judge ourselves now that we have the fulness of the blessing, which is eternal life. Remember it, and Him in whom it is, and by whom only we could have it. God the Father has given in Christ that sure blessing, and assured it for ever, in order that the soul may be free to look at anything, and to take up everything in the interests of His own holiness and glory, as having fellowship with the Father and the Son.
“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light.” It is not the Father now. In the early verses it was expressly and only as the Father, because there it was the outflow of grace through the Son. But now, this nature being communicated, we cannot if we would avoid having to do with God; and we feel for His will, holiness, and glory, just because we are so blest by His grace. “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you.” It is not the law but a message. Grace does not put under law, but it does communicate the judgment of God Himself on all that is contrary to His nature.
The message is that God is light. Heathenism was founded on a quite contrary assumption. They supposed darkness to be the source of everything; but not such is God to the Christian. “God is light.” Consequently all is detected and judged. “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Even Moses, in view of the hardness of men’s hearts, allowed a little darkness; for the law made nothing perfect; it was not the perfect expression of God: Christ only is this. It is only divines, or those misled by their errors, who give His glory to the law as the image of God. But according to scripture (and it “cannot be broken”) Christ is the image of God: never is the law so styled. The law had not to reveal God but to deal with man, — it condemned the first Adam. God under law had fallen sinful presumptuous man before Him. Law was really the expression of the lowest claim that God could assert over the first man had he been able to meet it. He could not abate those terms. It was the very least measure — the ten words — that God could accept even from a sinful man.
But it was altogether different when the Son of God came. Undoubtedly He vindicated the law, which fell through all other hands. Perfectly and in all things He retrieved the honour of God, which might else have seemed only committed to man to be sullied. Alas! the first man had done nothing but sin or break the law of God. The last Adam not only rescued the jewel from the filth of the men who had brought it into obloquy and turned it if not to corruption to their own ruin, but set it off so as to shed its own lustre and glorify the God who gave it. The mischief lay in sin, never in the smallest degree in the law. There was everything wrong in the first man; and this was the true secret. But to lower the Son of God to a mere doer of the law is unconsciously to deny His divine glory; nay, it is unwittingly to deny even His human perfection. No doubt the Lord never failed to magnify the divine law; but I venture to say He never did one thing in which He did not go beyond the law. It must be maintained further that not to speak of Christ, the Christian, who does not go beyond the law does not understand, enjoy, or adorn Christianity. And so far is this rising above the character of law in our walk from being an extraordinary effort, it is what the Christian man is called to do every day in his life. I admit this, that you cannot even contemplate such a thing until you know your place in Christ, and that Christ risen is your life; but when this is a settled truth for your soul, you will soon understand its certainty and preciousness, as well as your own new responsibility, as living in the Spirit, to walk also by the Spirit.
Let me repeat once more the message — “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Nothing is now allowed in view of the hardness of their hearts. This was the license under law, as our Lord Jesus Himself tells us, but it will not stand the revealed light of the gospel. There is nothing tolerated except what suits the nature of God Himself. Christ, the reality of it in His own person and ways on earth, alone has brought us the revelation of this truth. Where was it ever seen or heard of before? It was seen and heard in every way, in every word, of Jesus. It was so because He was God, but it was never so till He became man. It is there we see adoringly the wondrous truth of the person of the Lord Jesus. As long as He remained simply God, no such manifestation was or could be. Had He been merely man, it would have been simply impossible; but being not only what He was, but who He is, in Him here below we have God as well as man perfectly displayed. This it is that judges — judges everything in us.
Accordingly there follows the various testings of this divine nature in the believer. “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” It is no longer a question merely of an open falsehood. Of course this cannot but remain always immoral and inexcusable; and its true gravity is brought out incomparably more under the gospel than ever it was under the law. But then what is spoken of here goes far deeper than a pronounced lie; it might be only such virtually and practically — a lie that we live and do where we may not speak one. “If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” The Christian walks in the light; and the reason why he walks there is this, because he sees Christ, who alone is the light of life. And if he sees and follows Christ, which all His sheep do, he cannot but walk in the light, because following Jesus, who is the light, he necessarily walks in the light
I do not say that he necessarily walks according to the light. This is a very different matter, often confounded with it, but in fact wholly distinct, though it too ought to be. But every Christian walks in the light, if he is walking according to it, then glory is brought to the Lord; if, as is too often the case, he fails to walk according to the light, he dishonours the Lord so much the more because he does walk in the light.
A Jew as such did not walk in the light. When God had His dealings with Israel, there was nothing of the kind. He, though always light Himself, dwelt in the thick darkness. Not that He was darkness: this never was nor could be; but He dwelt in the dark, veiled and shut up by curtains and clouds of incense, sacrifices and priests. Thus He dwelt because man was in the dark; and God, by the very fact that He dwelt surrounded by His people Israel, dwelt in dark seclusion in view of the condition of Israel — the first man — in whose midst He deigned to dwell.
But now that Christ the Son is come, the full unclouded light of God shines out in love. Accordingly, as we have seen, He reveals Himself as light, with whom is no darkness at all. More than this, “if we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” Further, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” This total and evident contrast is what every Christian by his Christian profession assumes. If you are a Christian at all, you walk in the light; it is where you walk, and not here a question of how. The apostle John is not here at all discussing how far it may be made good, or how far you have realised it — albeit an important question for conscience. Here he is showing what is true and real, and so absolutely necessary that it is involved in the very being of a Christian man.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light (for Christ can be no less a standard than this) “we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Manifestly he is describing, not some special class among the faithful, but all genuine Christians, whoever they may be. As having seen and followed the Lord Jesus, they walk in the light, and being in that light, where all sin is judged, there is fellowship mutually. For the fellowship here is not with the Father and the Son: this had been already settled in the early verses. But here John is speaking of the communion of Christians one with another; and he says that being in the light of God (because the light is no less than Christ), the hindrances to fellowship are judged: — “We have fellowship one with another.” You see it every day, and wherever you may be. If you pass through any circumstances where you look to find no Christian, a little word is dropped, — Christ’s own name, or that which betrays to your heart the sense of His grace, and at once you are knit to the man, no matter who, indeed, the more, so to speak, because of the sound falling on your heart in such unexpected circumstances: — “We have fellowship one with another.” Then there is another comfort not less needed — “that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.” Such is the precious place grace has given us, the ever abiding power of the blood of Jesus Christ cleansing us from every sin.
This is not put here as a provision against our failure and for our restoration. The apostle treats of the place in which we are set by the grace of God from the beginning of our Christian career, and which remains unchanged right through. No doubt the apostle does not contemplate such a thing here as the departure of a real Christian from Christ. Still less, if possible, does he contemplate a Christian’s trifling with sin: this could not be, for the Spirit of God never does. We shall find, however, in its own just place, that if he slip into evil of a practical kind, or sin, God does not leave him without a resource. The grace that never fails appears for the child, if he have been drawn aside. But this is not at all the object in the verse before us, which is simply the assertion of the Christian’s place; and this, too, when it is a question of God’s own nature, which might produce (not searching only, but.) trial and anxiety in the spirit. But if there is, the very place where the power of the blood of Jesus Christ cannot fail to cleanse you from all sin is asserted.
But there might be another form of pretension. Instead of setting up to fellowship with God, while indifferent to His will, without sense of or care for standing in the light of God, the flesh might assume another character of delusion — the denial of sin. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” By a Christian is not meant one insensible to his own sinfulness. The truth is in him; and he confesses instead of hiding or ignoring his sins. He has fellowship with God; but, far from saying along with this “I have no sin,” he is the very man that hates and spreads out his sins before God. Accordingly verse 9 tells the tale of that which grace and truth effect in the Christian: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So the Christian does from the very starting-point of his career.
Still less does the Christian refuse to own that he has sinned. This is a yet grosser form of contrariety to the truth of God. Therefore the condemnation is still more stern: “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” The word of God, not to speak of conscience, declares so plainly that all have sinned, that it proves the audacity of unbelief and rebelliousness in those that deny, and this denial is incomparably more guilty since Christ came, to whose name these deniers laid claim.
This then closes the second part of the chapter. The first was the manifestation of the fulness of grace in Christ; the next, the detection of what is contrary to God in us. Hence we are now judged before God in His light. Having a nature which feels according to God, we at once discover what is inconsistent with Himself. For this very reason the Christian would be extremely cast down if, when drawn aside through the power of the enemy, there were not the provision of grace to meet and restore his soul. Hence two verses follow in the beginning of 1 John 2 as a sort of appendix to the doctrine and application of the first chapter: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for . . . the whole world.” I leave out “the sins of.” It is clear enough that they ought never to have been inserted in the common English Bible. Not only are they not required for the sense, as words generally are, but they injure the sense, and really insinuate erroneous doctrine. If the sins of the whole world were met by the propitiation of Christ, the whole world would be saved. No such statement occurs anywhere in the word of God. There is a righteous ground in the sacrifice of Christ on which God can meet the whole world — not only bear with it, but send the gospel to every creature. This, however, is a totally different statement from a “propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” In the real phrase it is clear that we have the beautiful wisdom of scripture, and at the same time an exact expression of the Lord’s rich grace without exaggeration: “My little children, I write unto you that ye sin not;” but if any one should alas! sin, instead of cause for despair, “we have an advocate with the Father.” Wondrous mercy! Jesus as much lives to take up the failure of His own, as He died to put away their sins by His blood. This too is founded on propitiation; but there is besides the blessed fact that He is the righteousness of the believer in the presence of God. His one expiatory sacrifice avails in abiding value; His place is before God as our righteousness; and there for the failing He carries on His living active advocacy with the Father.
Such is the doctrinal ground of this epistle, with the added special provision for those who may fail.
From 1 John 2:3 we begin the consideration of the characteristics of life in Christ which the believer possesses, and is bound to manifest. What is the leading trait? what the especial features of divine life in man? It is not power, nor love, nor even righteousness. What is it then? Obedience. This, it is clear, gives no importance to man. It necessitates the just subjection of the creature, and maintains also the majesty of God. How dreadful when grace, so-called, lowers His glory in the eyes of any soul! It is not denied that danger there is; but the danger is fully met by the precious word of God: “And hereby we do know that we know1 him, if we keep his commandments.” Do not call this legal: where is anything of the sort in John? Indeed there can be nothing legal in one who under the Holy Spirit unfolds Christ. And let me say further that, where love is, nothing is sweeter than the doing the will of the one that is loved, particularly where we know that He whose will we do is absolutely good and wise in all that He lays upon us. We know that this is the case with God.
“And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” He is no Christian at all, any more than those that pretended to have fellowship with Him and walked in darkness, or said they had no sin, or denied that they had sinned. The contrast is of real Christians with mere pretenders. It is not a comparison between faithful Christians and unfaithful ones. Banish all this kind of notion from your minds. It is delusion, and you lose thereby the profit for your soul. It is not what the Lord is treating of here. He is putting down a new class of evil that was beginning to spring up, of persons pretending to fresh light, but involving a departure from the only light of God, — persons who indulged in fine-spun speculations and claimed undiscovered truth, but were in the awful predicament of contradicting the revealed mind of God. It was a different Christ, who was not another but antichrist, as we shall see, — a different truth which was not really truth.
The characteristic object of the epistle is to maintain that none can ever rise above the Christ already manifested in this world. After all you may have learnt from Paul or any other, know as you may the Christian’s place in grace and all he hopes for in glory, if you want to behold perfection in man you must look back at what Christ was in this world — the self-same Jesus who is now in the glory of God. Such is Christ everywhere. There is a season when one needs most of all to think of the cross. There is a season when one needs the comfort of having Him as the Priest in heaven. There is a season when one can appreciate Him as the glorious Head of the church. But it is false that any of these points of view is to make Christ less precious as manifested in this world. Nor is there one who treats it with such decision and solemnity as John. The time was come for this: “Even now are many antichrists.” It is the very point and object of our apostle’s writing to maintain the indefeasible glory and the infinite excellence of the Lord Jesus in every respect, and this as displaying God the Father in this world. This Satan was seeking to annul through the false teachers now in view. Therefore are we shown from the first, as I have endeavoured to explain, the fulness of grace that came in His person, as well as the revelation of the moral nature of God. But now we have the first great test of the reality of divine life in man, namely, obedience. In this the unbeliever, no matter what his profession may be, is sure to fail. His will is unjudged. He either seeks his own way in pleasure, or he bows to man in superstitious asceticism, without knowledge of the true God or confidence in His grace. His failure is not perhaps in notions, but in obedience. On the other hand the Christian keeps the commandments of God; but he goes farther. It is said, “Whoso keepeth his word.” It is more than what is commanded.
He loves to do whatever may be the will of God, no matter what the form. It may be simply seeing how He manifests His character in Christ: this is enough. The obedient heart enters into and ascertains the will of God where disobedience would find nothing but difficulties, obstacles, and uncertainties. There is always to such either a lion in the way or no light. We find it too often in our families. See a child whose heart is not in obedience: what readiness of excuse! “Indeed, I did not know. You never told me. Why did you not forbid me before?” On the other see the obedient child. She has watched her mother’s looks even when not the appearance of a command was heard. She knows right well what will please her parent. Just so should we cherish the will of our Father as obedient children. It is not in this case the keeping of the express commands, but of His word. Let me add, that this is the answer to all the pride of man’s heart. For take the most moral man you ever saw: on what does he rest? He does this and that because he judges them right. This is his boast: “I always do what I believe is right.” Such is the desire of the moral man. I answer, that even if always consistent, and you always did a thing because it is right, you must inevitably be always wrong.
The true ground for a believer, and that which pleases God, is this, — not to do a thing simply because it is right, but because it is His will. The life that is formed on obedience is of an altogether different texture and source. To do things because they are right is to do without God and His word. It is merely idolizing self. The man becomes judge of all: “I think this, I do that, because it is right in my judgment.” Obedience alone puts man down, and God in His place. This only is right. Hence therefore we find, as the first distinguishing trait of the divine life, the exercise of obedience: not only are His commandments to be kept, but also His word.
But there is more than this. “He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.” I need not only commandment and word, but Himself as a living person before my eyes. It is always thus in John, who treats of Christ Himself Thus while providing for the deepest, there is a grace which wins the simplest. It is clearly Christ Himself, as He walked day by day in this poor world.
But there follows another and a remarkable word, which needs a little explanation. “Beloved,” says he (for this is the true word in verse 7), “I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning.” It means, as before, from the time that Christ was manifested in this world. “The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you.” The old commandment was manifested in Christ Himself He alone was always the obedient one. It is now not merely an old commandment, but a new one, yet the very same. Why? Because it is the same life, whether viewed in the Christian or in Christ. If I look at Christ Himself, it is the old commandment seen in Him from the beginning; but now it is no longer this solely, but a new commandment, “which thing is true in him and in you.” It is the same life, seen in Christ in its perfection, in us often hindered and obscured by the activity of what is of the first man. Christ alone was its fulness; now we have it in Him. As John tells us, it is true in Him and in you because it is the very same life.
“He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.” Love now comes in. It is not disobedience only which detects that a man is not really born of God, but also hatred. He that loves not is not born of God. “But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes.” This was the more important to press, because these false teachers had not the smallest concern about their brethren. What they sought was self — in one form or another; and consequently light, as they called it, was no more than the invention of novel notions. But the true way in which divine light (Christ) shows itself is in obedience as its effect, and so surely in love, You cannot obey God without loving your brethren also.
This, however, leads into a remarkable parenthesis in the epistle, on which we need not dwell, because it is perhaps more than any other part of the epistle familiar to all. The great characteristic throughout, being life in the Son of God, forbids the apostle from entering into the different measures of attainment as a rule; yet as it is a fact that there are some more mature, some more vigorous, and some comparatively feeble in the expression of Christ here below, the Spirit of God in this parenthesis notices these differences briefly.
Before this is done, He lays down what they had all in common. They were forgiven for Christ’s name.
Then the fathers were known by their knowledge of Christ — a beautiful and blessed distinction. They had “known him that was from the beginning.” This we have seen to be the great text of the whole epistle, and it is the more remarkable that he does not mention any depths or heights of knowledge. Not a word is said about dispensations, or prophecy, or anything that is thought abstruse. There was one that was beyond all others and included everything else: it was Christ Himself. The fathers were those marked by knowing Him. Wherever they might have learned, however their vigour might once have gone forth, they came back to what they started with — even Christ. It was a deeper appreciation of Christ, and this as manifesting God the Father here below. Such are the fathers.
The young men went forward in the ways of God, undaunted by difficulties, feeding on the word, and overcoming the wicked one. The babes (
παιδία) had a real enjoyment of the Father’s love.
The apostle traverses the ground again, and in doing so simply repeats in so many words what he had said of the fathers, adding a little more as to the young men, and most of all when he comes to the babes. The gracious condescension of love in this must be manifest to any spiritual mind. Those are peculiarly the objects of our Father’s care who need it most. The babes therefore have the chief place in this expanded form. The fathers did not so much want it. It is in addressing the babes that we find the development of the antichrists. They require to be guarded against. They abound in snares and seductions. We have therefore very important light as to the nature of the antichrists; and this consists of two great parts. All Jewish hope is denied, and so is all Christian truth. He denies the Christ, that is, the Jewish expectation. He denies the Father and the Son, and that is the sum of Christianity. Such the antichrist will be — the result of a total rejection of both Old Testament and New. He denies the object of a Jew’s faith, and also the person into whose love and fellowship the gospel brings those who believe now. All this will be completely swamped by the antichrist. This is the very point to which things are rapidly carrying men in the world at the present moment. I do not mean to say that more than currents everywhere are setting in toward that direction; but undoubtedly there is an undermining of the Old Testament, and a total ignoring as well as a growing rejection of the true grace of God in the New.
After all this is closed, in verse 28, the whole family are seen joined together as little children once more. “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence.” The way in which people commonly understand it is, that you may have confidence, but it is “we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming.” This is exceedingly blessed. He appeals to divine love in the saints. Do you be careful how you are walking; that when Christ appears, we may not be ashamed because of the little you have profited by the grace and the truth of God we have been ministering to you in Christ. This seems the meaning of it. “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.”
Now he is going to enlarge on the subject of righteousness. However, before he enters into it fully, he gives us a prefatory note beginning with the last verse of 1 John 2, and then shows us the privileges into which grace brings those who are born of God.
“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) It may be mentioned here that “sons of God” is never the expression of the writings of John. We have “sons of God” as well as “children” in Paul’s epistles. But “children of God” the Holy Ghost employs exclusively both in the gospel and in this epistle of John. Is it asked what is the difference? It lies in this, that son (
υἱὸς) is more the public, title, whereas child (
τέκνον) conveys rather the closeness of connection by birth. It expresses community of nature as born of God. For it will be understood that a person who was not a child might be adopted as a son; but the Christian is not only a son adopted by our God — he is really a child as being a partaker of the divine nature. This only it is John puts forward and prominently speaks of; and it is seen at once how it connects itself with his doctrine everywhere. We are born of God, born of water and of the Spirit, made partakers of the divine nature (in the sense, of course, of having the life that was in Christ). “Therefore the world knew us not, because it knew him not.”
So absolutely is the life of Christ found in us, that we have the same fare, so to speak, as Christ in this world. The world did not know Him; therefore it does not know us. It is simply because of Christ, unknown then personally, unknown now in us who live of His life. When He was here, it was no other life than that which we now have in Him. The world never knew, never appreciated, the life that was in Christ; neither does it recognise that which is in the children of God. But this can in no way hinder the blessedness of the result for the children of God.
This is no mere empty title. “Beloved, now are we the sons (children) of God; and it doth not yet appear” (that is, it has not been manifested) “what we shall be.” As far as the word of God could show, (and how well it does!) it is clearly revealed there. This remark is added to cut off misapprehension of the sense, as it may hinder the vagueness that prevails in many minds. Indeed, an hope has been revealed to us most distinctly: what we shall be is revealed not only elsewhere, but here also. The apostle does not at all overlook this. But “it doth not yet appear,” in the sense that it has not yet been manifested as a fact before the world; but “we know,” says he, and we only know because it has been revealed by the Holy Ghost in the word. “We know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” There is no haze over the future of the child of God. He has the certainty in his soul, because he has the revealed assurance in scripture that he shall be like Christ. Christ being his life now, no wonder that he must be like Christ then; and this too is founded on a ground blessedly sure and simple, and at the same time full of glory to Christ: “We shall see This is enough. Such and so great is the gracious assimilating energy of the Second man, that for us to see Him is to be like Him. When we saw Him here on earth by faith, we were made spiritually like Him; when we shall see Him bodily by and by, we shall be like Him even in our bodies.
Such then is the portion of the Christian by grace; and here is the moral consequence: “Every one that hath this hope on him” — founded on Him — “purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” Thus for the Christian it is not any longer a law that demands this thing or that. There is the full operation of the Spirit by the entire word of God, no part of scripture being excluded from the enjoyment, instruction, and admonition of the Christian. At the same time, what gives all scripture its fulness of application to the believer is the possession and knowledge of Christ Himself. Without Him you cannot understand any part of the Bible spiritually — that is, neither certainly nor thoroughly. It is Christ, who not only gives us intelligence, but gives it power by the Spirit over and in us.
Then John proceeds naturally to trace the difference between the two families: “Every one that committeth sin committeth also lawlessness.” I give you the sense rather more exactly than it stands in our common version. There is no allusion to transgressing the law. Perhaps there is hardly a worse translation than this in the New Testament, nor one as to which even scholars seem duller. Sin is declared to be lawlessness. Beyond a shadow of doubt it may be asserted that the apostle does not define sin as “the transgression of the law.” It is a false version which nothing can justify, and I am perfectly persuaded the more any man understands either the word of God in general or the language in which John wrote, with the less hesitation he will confess this. That a person who is only spelling out his Greek, and learning to render by the help of the Authorized Version, may make difficulties about the matter is intelligible; but it is hard to see how an unbiassed honest man who knows the language could have the slightest question about it. Do I insinuate that our translators were not men of integrity, able, erudite, and pious? They were under no small difficulties, but they tried to do their best. Possibly their attention was never drawn to the point. Even intelligent men were considerably muddled as yet from the past as well as the actual struggles of that day, But instead of either finding fault with them or endorsing all they said, what we have to do is to profit by whatever is good and true, and at the same time to be warned by whatever mistakes others have made.
Now I maintain, not only that the word (
ἀνομία) will not bear such a meaning, but that it is altogether foreign to the scope of the passage and the drift of the apostle’s reasoning. He is not speaking of particular acts, but about nature manifesting itself in our ways. “Every one that committeth sin committeth also lawlessness.” A man who sins shows his will alienated from God — an evil nature derived from him who fell through Satan. Here the apostle regards man as doing nothing else but his own will, which is exactly what the natural man does. He acts independently of God, and, as far as he is concerned, never does anything but his own will. John is not speaking of positive overt acts, but of the man’s habitual bent and character — his life and nature. The sinner, then, sins, and in this merely shows out his state and the moral roots of his nature as a sinner (namely, lawlessness). He has neither heart nor conscience towards God: he does what he likes as far as he can. He practises lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.
What makes it of practical as well as dogmatic importance is, that the common view entails the accompanying error that the law is always in force for all the necessary expression of God’s mind and will. But this we know from many scriptures is not true. The Bible is thoroughly explicit, that one particular nation was said to be under law, and that the rest of mankind had no such position, though responsible on their own ground. (See Rom. 2:12-15; Rom. 3:19.) Here, therefore, the translation cannot be correct which contradicts other passages of undoubted holy writ; for if the common version of 1 John 3:4 held good, the rest of mankind outside the Jews could not have been sinners at all, because they were not under law. Thus, evidently, this error throws the whole doctrine of what sin is and of God’s dealings with men into hopeless confusion. It necessarily darkens some vitally momentous parts of God’s word as to past, present, and future. For instance, according to the scripture already referred to, in the day of judgment God will by Jesus Christ deal with the Jew according to the law, with the Gentiles that have it not according to conscience; and, by parity of principle, with professing Christians according to gospel light. There is no hint of judging all by the measure which was given to Israel. The idea springs from a source no better than traditional ignorance.
Again, taking Romans 4:15; and Rom. 5:13, 14, it would perplex all to bring in the common version of 1 John 3:4; for it would follow thence that there was no sin, because it had not the form of a transgression of law between Adam, who had a law, and Moses, by whom the law was given. So fatal may be a mis-translation of scripture. In fact, practically, it lowers the sense of what sin is throughout the length and breadth of Christendom, others having fallen into an error similar to that of our own translators. It is therefore as certain as it is important to see that sin embraces much more than a transgression of the law. In this case there could be no such thing as sin without the law, and all would be judged alike as under the law and transgressors of it, contrary to the express word of God. Our version is wrong. Sin is not the transgression of the law, though every transgression of the law is a sin. The true meaning, as I have said, is, “sin is lawlessness.”
As for the Christian, then, to resume our sketch, all is different (not conduct only but rather a new nature) from man as such. We know that He (Christ) was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him is no sin. “Whosoever abideth in him” — and this is the consequence of really knowing Christ — “sinneth not.” Such is the life of the Christian that this is the consequence of abiding in Him. If grace has turned my soul to Him, if I am resting on Christ as my Saviour and Lord, my life and righteousness, I shall also by grace abide in Him, and “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not. In fact, who ever sinned with Christ before his eyes? When a Christian is drawn aside, another object usurps the place of Christ, and his own will exposes him to the wiles of Satan working on his fleshly nature through the world. And “Whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.” He evidently speaks of one unconverted — a man in his natural state. If he had only seen and known Christ, how changed all would be!
“Little children, let no man deceive you.” This the false teachers and antichrists were doing. They had invented the awful theory that the great blessing of Christ had swept away all need of self-judgment and holiness — that sin was gone in every sense. Hence a believer might take his ease in the world. If Christ had taken away all sin, why talk more about it? What need of repentance or confession, as the croakers talked who refused to go on to higher life and truth? “Little Children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that doeth sin is of the devil.”
Here we see the ground for saying that John traces all up to two distinct families-the family of God and that of the devil. “The devil sinneth from the beginning:” such is his character, though he is not under law. “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested that he might destroy the works of the devil.” That was His character, and the result of His appearing and work in this world. “Every one that has been born of God doth not sin.” Such is the deduction: “for his seed remaineth in him;” — the life that God has given through faith, Christ Himself being the source and expression of it — “and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” There is shown the new nature. It is a matter of course that every one lives according to his nature: only the Christian, having two, must mortify the evil and walk according to the good. Take the simplest animal, — the bird above, or the reptile below, or any other around us, — every creature lives according to its nature. So does the sinner. He lives according to that nature which is now under Satan’s power. The believer lives in Christ. John is not here looking at modifications through circumstances, it is to be observed. He is not here looking at particular cases of unfaithfulness. John as a rule does not occupy himself with the details of fact. He looks at truth in its own proper abstract character apart from passing circumstances; and if you do not read John’s writings thus, especially the epistle before us, I am afraid that there is little prospect that you will ever understand them.
Having shown this, he now brings in the other test, that is, not simply righteousness but love. “This is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Not as Cain” — no love was there. “Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother.” There is the connection He has brought in the wicked one and his family. Man now is not only a sinner, but especially shows his character in this, that he exhibits no love. By love he means what is of God, and this exclusively. He does not of course deny natural affection, but insists on love as divine. Cain had no love, and proved it by slaying his own brother. “And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous.” He here traces the link that binds righteousness with love. We have had righteousness separately as well as love: now he shows that the two things are intertwined, and are found only in the same persons. But here too, as in Christ was no sin, so in Him we behold perfect love, and in the world hatred. Ought we then to be surprised at the world’s hatred? Hence, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Every one that hateth his brother is a murderer.”
Thus things are followed to their full result, as we have seen them traced to their hidden sources before God. How different was all with Christ! “Hereby perceive we the love” . . . To add “of God” spoils the sentence. There is no ground for interpolating any words. But One showed such love, and He was man as surely as God. “Hereby perceive we the love, because he laid down his life for us.” If you want to know what love is, look here. This was love indeed. “And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” The same life of which we live was in Him: ought it not to be exercised in similar love? We may not often be called to lay down our life for our brethren; but are there not plain, simple, common ways by which it may be tested every day? My brother may have need: it is no use talking about readiness to die for my brother, if I at once shrink back from meeting his ordinary and perhaps urgent necessity? There is nothing great here; it is homely, but how practical! How it puts the heart to the test, and one that might be presented any day of the week!
“Whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth. And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” He here puts before them the great danger of trifling with the practical consequences of the truth. Suppose that a man knows what God says and wishes, and yet does not act upon it, what is the consequence? He must get into consciousness of distance from God. “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin,” says James. So we have the same question here. The point is not a man’s losing his place in Christ, but his ground of confidence with God. Communion is almost as strikingly a characteristic point of John, as life in Christ, and the love from which both flow. He is not satisfied that men should be simply Christians, but that they should enjoy Christ practically. An idle word, a passing thought unjudged, might disturb this.
“Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.” Looking up, a simple soul goes on with the Lord. “Then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ.” It is the beginning of everything good, and goes right through to the end, as I need not say. There is the one and only starting-point in the mind of the Holy Ghost, who always gives Christ His own primary place. To be saved even is not put as the first duty, but to “believe on his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him.”
Here we come to a very important expression, which we find more particularly in 1 John 4. It is not simply our dwelling in Him: this we had already in 1 John 1 (and abiding in Him is the same word); but He dwells in us. Wonderful truth! This is here applied to one of these two things. “Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Holy Spirit which he hath given us.” The Holy Ghost given to us is the palmary proof that God abides in us. He dwells in us by His Spirit. This does not necessarily involve our abiding in God; but if God gives His Spirit to any believer, He abides in that man. We shall find more than this in what follows; but before these truths are explained more fully, John cautions the saints.
Hence 1 John 4 begins with this warning. He is going to tell us about the Spirit of God and His abiding in us, but he would have us on our guard because there are evil spirits, as certainly as the Holy Spirit, and this as proved by the false prophets that have gone out into the world. “Believe not every spirit.” There is nothing that exposes the believer (and it has always been so) to greater danger, than severing the Holy Spirit from Christ. The apostle ever binds His power with Christ’s name. We shall be kept in the truth if we remember that the one object of the Holy Ghost is to glorify Christ, and this therefore becomes the test in practice: the Spirit of God must ever operate to keep Christ before our eyes. If not, we are not far from snare. Connect the Spirit with the church merely, and then you will have popery; connect Him simply with individuals, and you will have fanaticism. He is a free and evident witness to Christ. There is the truth. The Holy Ghost is sent down to take of the things of Christ, and to show them to us. He is come to glorify (not a priest nor even the church, but) Christ Himself. This, I admit, is the truest glory of the saint and the church — their greatest blessedness and joy. In Christ’s name the church is formed by the Holy Ghost; through Him also the Holy Ghost dwells in the believer. This is not doubted; but all this, and the testimony and ways of each and all are invariably for exalting our God by Christ Himself. If they fail here, the salt has lost its savour.
Take, I will not say the grossness of popery but, the Quaker system, as an instance which painfully reverses the truth. The reason is plain: the Spirit is practically severed from Christ, and the result is that, under colour of humility, their testimony constantly tends to exalt the first man. Every child of Adam is supposed to have the Spirit of God. The consequence is that the truth is darkened, impaired, and destroyed, and all due sense of the ruin of man destroyed by their extreme form of Pelagianism, deifying not ordinances indeed but conscience.
However this may be, here we find the apostle solemnly warning the saints against false prophets. Many such men were gone into the world. We want therefore some sure means of discerning them. It is not a question of deciding who are Christ’s and who are not; but rather what sort of spirit it is that acts by this teacher or that. It is not at all the point to pronounce on man’s state before God or his destiny. People have always been prone enough to form and give opinions when the Lord forbids it. It is clear that we are called of the Lord frankly to accept persons as born of God when they render a true testimony to Christ; but, on the other hand, we ought to beware of endorsing those whose testimony in word or deed is against the name of Jesus.
This then is the test of what is or is not of the Holy Ghost. “Hereby ye know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God.” Let me beg the reader here to leave out a word or two which are not printed in italics. “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.” The difference is great. As it reads in the Authorised Version, it is altogether inadequate. It may be in the recollection of not a few here that a generation ago there were manifestations of spirits (evil, I doubt not), which did not deny that Jesus came in the flesh. On the contrary, they seemed to lay the greatest stress on the fact of His incarnation, and chid the orthodox for want of heed to this truth if not of faith in it. The point of their own false doctrine lay in maintaining that Jesus took the flesh in the same condition of corruption in which all others are born, and that Jesus showed His perfection in subduing and purifying the flesh. Of course you will understand that my reference is to the Irvingite movement. To confess therefore that Jesus is come in the flesh is not satisfactory.
What then does the apostle say and mean here? Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God. This is to confess His person; not His deity alone, still less His humanity alone, but Him who thus came. The one is a bare acknowledgment of a fact; the other is the confession of a divine person, yet a man. Now there is no demon that ever acknowledges the person of Christ. There is no evil spirit but winces at and refuses to endorse the glory of Christ; whereas the direct object of the Spirit of God is always to maintain His person in all the fulness of His glory, and in all His grace. Let none take it as a statement of His human nature. This is not the meaning. The real humanity of Jesus is contained in it, but it is by no means the whole or chief part of the confession. Take any man — yourself, for instance; who would describe you as having come in the flesh? No man that had common sense; because one might well ask in what other way you could come. Here was the difference between the Son of God and any other that ever was born. All mankind must come in the flesh if they come at all. The wonderful thing was that this divine person should come in the flesh. For what claim had flesh on Him in the slightest degree? Nothing but His grace hindered His coming in His proper divine glory. Had He been thus manifested in this world, of course it must have involved the destruction of all the race. According to the will and counsels of the Godhead He was pleased to come in the flesh. It was not the manifestation of glory save of His person morally and in love, but of that very grace which we have seen from the beginning of this epistle, and which runs through to the end.
The spirits, then, which are not of God refuse (save when divine power bent and broke them) to own the personal glory of Christ, while the Holy Spirit of God loves to own it. Such is the test. If therefore any doctrine undermine the glory of Christ, you have an unequivocal proof that it is of Satan as certainly: whatever exalts Christ, according to the word, is of God.
This leads him to speak of the difference of what is in the world from that which is of God. In the world there is ever at work a restless spirit of contrariety to Christ. It is the spirit of antichrist, which will be manifested fully in its own season. Hence it is said, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world. They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God: 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.” These false teachers being of the world, speak of what has their heart, and this attracts the world. There is sympathy between the world and them. “We are of God,” says the apostle, speaking of himself and his fellows raised up to declare the word of God fully. He is peremptory; and this rouses the spirit of unbelief as it meets faith: “He that knoweth God heareth us; and he that is not of God heareth not us.” Here again is a serious test. It is not only the confession of Christ, but that man is proved to be of the world who refuses subjection to the apostolic word. Many a man might profess to acknowledge the literal words of Jesus; many another might own only those of the Old Testament. If you do no more than this now, you cannot be of God. He who is really of God, while thoroughly owning every word He wrote of old, feels especially the blessedness of that which He has now given by His holy apostles and prophets. (Compare Eph. 2, 3) This was of the utmost moment to urge at the time the gospels and epistles appeared. At the same time, though not of course in exactly the same shape and manner, it always abides a grand test, next to the person of Christ. The time hastens which will prove how few among those that acknowledge the New Testament really hear and believe it. The saddest proof that they do not believe it to be God’s word will be their giving it up. Did they believe it, they would no more abandon it than the true mother would allow the child to be cut in twain.
But this brings us to another point — not the truth, but loving one another. The truth comes first, and then love. “For love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God” (whatever may be his pretensions and his talk); “for God is love.”
This leads him to speak of the way in which God has shown His love. He brings it out in three forms. First, there is the wondrous manifestation of God in Christ which is the foundation of the gospel; and in a twofold way also He was manifested in Christ — as life, and as propitiation. If we had not Christ as life, we never could understand God. Could we have understood Him by having Christ as our life without propitiation, as His holiness and judgment would have been slighted, so we could. only be intensely miserable. To have the knowledge of what God is and of what we are, and withal not to have our sins borne away, must be alike His dishonour and our everlasting shame and anguish; and so many a quickened soul who is ignorant of the efficacy of redemption proves in its measure. God in His great mercy does not permit any to know it to its depths. But how many of us have known what it is to be converted, and yet for a while ignorant of the judgment of sin, and its absolute removal for us by the cross of Christ! Consequently one had no taste for the world, a horror of sin, a real desire to do God’s will, but not the least rest for heart and conscience in Christ before God. It is a mercy to be thus converted, a misery to abide in this state. What a joy that God does not divorce but unites for us life and propitiation in our Lord and His work! Let not man meddle here. What God has joined let no man put asunder. He has given the same Christ who is life to be also a propitiation for our sins. Such is the teaching of the verses 9, 10, both being the display of the love of God, and in contrast with law (the latter especially), which had no life to give, and could only judge, not put away, sin.
But this is not all. “If God so loved us” (and He has demonstrated it as nothing else could), “we also ought to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” It is a wonderful word, evidently connecting itself (whether written before or after is of no account) with what is said in John 1:18. There Christ stands the manifestation of God in love. Here the saints are called to be no less. Beloved brethren, how far do we manifest our God and Father by this divine love that never seeks its own, and is at all cost bent on the good of its objects, His children, yea all, even enemies?
“Hereby we know that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit.” This goes farther than the last verse of 1 John 3, which said that He dwells in us, not we in Him. But we shall see more of this, and therefore I do not pause on it, now. “And we have seen and testify that the Father hath 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.”
I hardly know anything that concerns us more profoundly affecting than these verses; for what can be conceived near to God, if it be not dwelling in God and God in us? There is no image that tells out intimacy and mutuality, so to speak, more than this. And when we think who and what God is, as well as what we are, it is indeed a great word to say. Of whom does the apostle say it? Of every Christian; and this too as the simple fruit of the gospel.
But let us look a little at the force of the passage more closely. In the one case we read, “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” in the other it is, “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” It is not now said, “Hereby we know.” In this instance, perhaps, the person may be without objective knowledge of it: this does not hinder the truth of the blessing. If you confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in you, and you in God. He dwells in you, having given His Spirit to be in you.
This is the way in which His dwelling in man is effected; but the consequence of that gift to you is that you make God your refuge and delight. There is no such thing is the dwelling of the Spirit in a saint without bringing the soul to judge itself, as well as to peace with God. To this it seems to me that every Christian comes by grace sooner or later, though not always at first. He will be brought to it in God’s goodness, were it, as it is often, on a death-bed. We do not always judge aright. There may be not seldom hindrances to comfort through bad teaching, as well as through unjudged sin. Of these I do not speak now, nor of defect in intelligence. Still less do I speak of the effects of the Calvinistic system or of Arminianism, both of which are prejudicial to enjoying the grace of God, Calvinists are apt to think an Arminian cannot have peace. — This is all nonsense: he may enjoy peace with God as really as the Calvinist. Indeed experience would say it is more frequent than with those of the opposite school, though each in a different way look within (I believe, unscripturally). The truth is that peace rests on our faith of Christ and His work. Arminianism is no more to me than Calvinism, and I doubt that I admire one more than the other. As systems they seem to me narrow, unsound, and pernicious. But I thank God that to not a few who are committed to both sides He has given to taste of His own grace in Christ.
Be this as it may, if I confess Jesus the Son of God as Him on whom my soul rests, and on His rich redemption, the Holy Ghost says, “I can dwell there.” He does dwell there; and if so, He is graciously pleased to draw out the heart to confide and repose in God. This is what is meant by dwelling in God. It is to find in God one’s hiding-place, as well as spring of counsel and cheer and strength. One turns to Him in each trial and difficulty as well as joy. I am pretty sure there is not one of us who uses this privilege as he ought. Nor does John speak of degree at all. Such a thought is foreign to the abstract style of the apostle John. He treats of a great fact for the Christian, though it may be more or less realized, and “God dwelleth in him, and he in God.” This is what faith receives and has. The beginning is God making His abode in us; the result is that we dwell in God. But sometimes he puts it in the order of our dwelling in God and God in us. It would seem that he then speaks of experience, where he puts our part first, and then God’s abode in us.
I must briefly point out the third ground, — not the display of love, or its operation in us, but the perfection of love with us (verse 17). It is not only that we know that we dwell in God and He in us by this, that He has given to us of His Spirit; but herein has love been perfected with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. It is not a state given to us in the day of judgment; we are so dealt with now; but this gives boldness even with the thought of the day of judgment before us. How could it be otherwise? If I really believe and am sure that God has made me now to be what Christ is, what can the effect of the day of judgment be but to display the perfections, not only of what Christ is for me, but of what you and I are by and in Christ our Lord? And this we are now.
The last chapter (1 John 5) speaks of another thing. Here I must be brief indeed. It is connected with the charge at the end of chapter 4 to love one’s brother. The apostle had shown the various displays of divine love, with the falsehood of professing to love God while one hated a brother. But this might elicit the question, who my brother is. We need simplicity, as with our God, so with His children. It is in vain to pretend that this is hard to find out. The Spirit of God does lay down unsparingly and in all their fulness the tests of divine life; but now let the question be raised, who my brother is, and the answer is as plain as possible: “Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.”
Is it not sweet that after all the fulness of truth had been revealed, after all the display of Christ in glory had been made by the apostle Paul, after the apostle John had set us in presence of the divine nature and eternal life in His person, we have here such a proof of the unchangeable testimony to the Lord Jesus as Christ? What was the truth that Peter and the rest preached at Pentecost? That Jesus is the Christ. What is the truth with which the epistle of John concludes? That Jesus is the Christ. There is no wavering in what is divine.
No doubt there is the unfolding of truth admirably suited to all the varying needs of the church; but when you come to the question after all — who and what is God’s child and my brother? — this is what he is: the man that believes that Jesus is the Christ. I grant you it is the very lowest confession that the Holy Ghost could accept; and it would be a very poor thing if the Christian only believed that Jesus was the Christ. If made exclusive, what an unworthy dealing with all the glory of Jesus] But it is to me a blessed thing that the Holy Ghost maintains to the end the value of what He began with; not that more was not made known, but that this abides in freshness and power. No doubt such a confession might be most unintelligent, but at least there is this divine reality in his soul — he does believe that Jesus is the Christ. That this should be said at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles we can all understand; but it seems to me that none but God would have thought of insisting on it at the end of the Christian testimony; as if, among the last words that the Holy Ghost uttered, He should saying — I have been leading you into all depths and all heights; I have laid open in fresh scriptures the full circle of revealed truth, but I stand to what I began with. Learn the truth, have it developed in your souls, not by the truth developing, but by your growing up into it; but never give up first principles. “Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” It is not now loving God only, but His children; and thus your love is proved to be divine, and that you really love God Himself. But there is another query often put: How am I to know that I do love the children of God? Be sure you are in the right path. Here it is — “By this we know that we love the children of God.” It is not by gratifying them, or going where they go perhaps, or forcing them where you go. You might be totally mistaken; you might hurry souls, or be drawn away by them yourself. There is no love in either one or other, but there is in this — “when we love God and keep his commandments.” If my soul goes out to Him in love, and I show it by unreserved fidelity to His will, there is nothing that is more truly an exercise of love to His children. You may seem to the careless not thinking of them, but you are then loving them best. When you make an object of the children of God, there is no real love. When you are really devoted to God and to His will, you truly love the children of God.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.” The law was a yoke so grievous that neither their fathers nor they were able to bear; but it is not so with the truth of God. The law of God was for the punishing as well as testing of the old man; the word of God is the food and directory of the new man. But is not the world a great hindrance? No doubt; but there is a something that overcomes the world; and what is this? Faith. But mark, he does not say that “every one who believeth that Jesus is the Christ” overcomes the world. Perhaps you may see some whom you cannot doubt are the real children of God, but they do not overcome the world. What then will enable them to overcome the world? Believing that Jesus is the Son of God. “The Christ,” I might perhaps say, connects Him with the world, with the Jews and the nations He is to govern; “The Son of God” connects Him with the Father above the world. Such is the difference. Thus, while holding fast and giving all its value to the confession that Jesus is the Christ of God, I am not to be tied to it. We need a growing sense of what Christ is, and of His glory, in order to resist the downward tendency and the ensnaring power of the world around; and true power over the world is by advancing in the knowledge of Christ. There is no other thing that will wear so well. “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?”
“This is he that came by (
διὰ) water and blood.” John keeps us fully in the consciousness of our deliverance, but also of our responsibility (i.e., as God’s children). “This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by (
ἐν) water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” This, and no more here, is genuine scripture. A good deal of the two verses is and ought to be left out, if all legitimate authority is heeded by us.
The historical fact, which becomes the basis of the teaching, is that recorded in the Gospel, John 19:34, to which special attention is drawn in the following verse, as recorded by John who saw it; “and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.” Here, instead of putting that inspired witness forward, the Spirit takes this place, the greatest of all present witnesses for Christ. The idea of baptism here is as childish for “the water” as the Lord’s Supper is confessed to be for “the blood.” Purification, propitiation, and power answer to the three, all flowing to us in or consequent on the death of Christ, the Son of God.
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath witnessed concerning his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not hath made him a liar; because he hath not believed in the witness which God hath witnessed concerning his Son,” etc. That is, God bears His testimony in this wondrous triad — the Spirit, the water, and the blood, — three witnesses, yet only one testimony: namely, that there is no life in the first man at all, and that all the blessing is in the Second; that He it is who by His death expiates my sins and purges me, and that the Holy Ghost gives me the joy of both by faith. The Holy Ghost is come not to bear witness to the first man — He has only to convict him of sin — but He testifies to the glory of the Second man, the riches of God’s grace in Him, and the efficacy of His work in death for the believer. The church was becoming a ruin; but the believer has the witness in himself. Eternal life is superior to all change; and that he has — even Christ — an object of outward testimony, but also by grace in himself.
This is farther pursued, showing that it is in the Son of God. “He that hath the Son hath life;” and if a man has not the Son of God, it does not matter what else he may have, he has not life. It is in the Son, and only in Him.
Then comes the conclusion. “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,” And there he stops. What is added as the last clause of verse 13 only spoils the verse. It was put in by man. “And this is the confidence,” — it is not a question of life only, but of confidence. “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us.” Thus after life comes confidence, and then the formal close of all follows, as we see in verses 18-21. “And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of him.” But is there not such a thing as sin? Yes. “If any one see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: concerning that I do not say that be should make request. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”
Let me make a brief remark on this. The “sin unto death” has nothing to do with eternal death, but with the close of this life. It means not some extraordinarily grievous act, but any sin whatever under special circumstances. For instance, when Ananias and Sapphira lied in presence of the grace that the Holy Ghost was then bestowing on the church, this was “sin unto death.” Many a man since then has told a lie which has not been so judged: it was not therefore a “sin unto death.” The circumstances of the case have an important influence in modifying it and giving it character. So with any other sin. I mention this because it is there precisely where spiritual power is necessary very often; and all children of God might not see the bearing of a sin and its peculiar heinousness under a given state of things; but when once it is shown, they can understand it perfectly, because they have the life of Christ in them, and the Holy Ghost too. “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death.” We must not think that all sin is unto death; but any sin under peculiar circumstances might be.
And then the last verses sum up the whole matter. “We know that every one that is born of God sinneth not.” We saw that to be born of God, to have life, is the great doctrine of the epistle. Here is its character. Such an one does not sin, “but he that has been born of God keepeth himself, and the wicked one toucheth him not.” Here we have not merely its character, but its source. The character was Christ; the source is God. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one.” This is the other sphere. “And we know that the Son of God hath come.” Now we have the object given. “The Son of God hath come, and hath given us an understanding that we may know him that is true; and we are in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols” — objects apt to rise with blinding power between their eyes and Christ.
Appendix On 1 John 5:7, 8.
It is much to be regretted that excellent persons in all ages have been prone to rest some of their defences of the truth on untenable ground. The danger is that when any of these mistakes in proof are set aside, especially by foes of the truth, not only are such uninformed and incautious disputants apt to fight stubbornly for what is indefensible (i.e., really for self), but others, partly through timidity, partly through ignorance, may dread that the truth itself is imperilled, or be even disposed to stand in doubt of it, confounding the ill-conduct of its advocates with its own impregnable evidence.
Thus one hears with humiliation that any man of learning should seek to shelter the famous passage of the three heavenly witnesses from the reprobation which to say the least an interpolated gloss deserves, and from none so heartily as from pious men jealous for the divine glory of the Lord Jesus. Truth is itself too sacred to admit of giving quarter to that which is spurious, the continued sanction of which is hostile to the authority of the Bible, and in particular to the very point which the suspicions article is meant to support. Let us remember that the study of the authorities on which the Greek Testament rests has greatly developed during the last seventy years, and especially perhaps the last thirty. During this time many fresh manuscripts, some of great value and antiquity, have been brought to light, along with a fuller and more exact collation of all that had been previously known; and this makes an error of the kind less excusable and more painful, if it be in a quarter one respects.
I will not cite, however, from any volume of the day, but confront a sentence of the famous J. Calvin with the facts, that every intelligent Christian who may want information, but values nothing but the truth, may be enabled to judge for himself. “Since, however, the passage flows better when this clause [from “in heaven” to “in earth” inclusively] is added (!) and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies (!!) I am inclined to receive it as the true reading.”2 (Calvin, Translation Soc. Comment. on the Cath. Epistles, p. 257. Edinburgh, 1855.) Then, again, Beza, who ought to have known more of the manuscripts, follows in the wake of his leader. Such statements, I confess, are inexplicable, save on the supposition both of strong prejudice and of surprising inattention to the facts of the case. For so decisive is the testimony of ancient documents (whether manuscripts, versions, or citations by the earliest ecclesiastical writers), that if this portion can be allowed to be scripture against their testimony, a fatal blow is inflicted on all certainty of evidence for the rest of the New Testament; for all the uncials preserve a dead silence as to it, more than 160 cursives, all the lectionaries, all the ancient versions except the Latin, and even of the Latin more than fifty of the oldest and best copies, and of the rest it is in some cases inserted by a later hand, and with that uncertainty of position which often accompanies an interpolation; while it is not once quoted in any genuine remains of the early Greek or even Latin fathers, even where the occasions seem most to call for it. Its supposed citation by Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, etc. is an illusion.
Hence Erasmus, in his first (1516) and second (1519) editions of the Greek New Testament, so far faithfully followed his MS, and did not print verse 7. It would seem that the Complutensian editors must have boldly translated the Latin version as it stands in the majority of the extant copies; for in the captious attack now before me (Annotationes Jacobi Lopidis Stunicae contra Erasmus Rot. in defens. translationis N.T. Complut. 1520), the ablest of them does not pretend to diplomatic authority for the Greek they venture to print, but arraigns the Greek MSS. as corrupted, and backs up the common text of the Vulgate by a quotation from Jerome’s (?) - Prologue to the Canonical Epistles. “Sciendum est hoc loco graecorum codices apertissime esse corruptos: nostros (!) vero veritatem ipsam ut a prima origine traducti sunt continere. Quod ex prologo beati Hieronymi super epistolas canonicas manifeste apparet. Ait enim Quae si sic ut ab eis digestae sunt ita quoque ab interpretibus fideliter in latinum verterentur eloquium: nec ambiguitatem legentibus facerent: nec sermonum sese varietas impugnaret illo praecipue loco ubi de unitate trinitatis in prima Ioannis epistola positum legimus, In qua etiam ab infidelibus translatoribus multum erratum esse a fidei veritate comperimus trium tantummodo vocabula hoc est aquae sanguinis et spiritus in ipsa sua editione ponentibus et patris verbique ac spiritus testimonium ommittentibus in quo maxime et fides catholica roboratur et patris et filii et spiritus sancti una divinitatis substantia comprobatur.” [I give the quotation as S. cites it, not as it stands in the Benedictine edition of Jerome’s works.]
Erasmus had already replied to our notorious countryman, Edward Lee (afterwards Popish archbishop of York), that he did not find in the Greek what was so common in the Latin, and edited accordingly, without expressing approval or blame; that he had at different times seen seven manuscripts, in none of which was anything that answered to the ordinary Vulgate. “Porro quod Hieronymus in Praefatione sua testatur hunc locum ab haereticis depravatum, si velim uti jure meo, possem appellare ab Hieronymi auctoritate, quod Leus facit quoties ipsi commodum est And then he proceeds to expose the exaggeration of Lee, and to propose a conjectural correction in the citation from the prologue. (Desid. Erasmi. Opp. tom. ix., coll. 275, 276.) The truth is, that, by the common consent of the learned, including the Benedictine and other editors of Jerome’s writings, this prologue is confessed not to be his production, but of a much later age, and by an inferior hand. To his Spanish critic he answers, “Hic ex auctoritate Hieronymi [which we have just seen is no authority at all, being a forgery], docet Stunica Graecos codices palam esse depravatos. Sed interim ubi dormit codex ille Rhodiensis? Porro nos non susceperamus negotium emendandi Graecos codices, sed quod in illis esset, bona fide reddendi.” Then, after a long argument intended to neutralize the alleged statement of Jerome’s (which Erasmus says, and no wonder, he does not quite understand), he adds, “Cum Stunica meus toties jactet Rhodiensem codicem, cui tantum tribuit auctoritatis, mirum est, non hic adduxisse illius oraculum, praesertim cum ita fere consentiat cum nostris codicibus, ut videri possit Lesbia requla. Veruntamen ne quid dissimulem, repertus est apud Anglos Graecus codex unus, in quo habetur, quod in vulgatis deest. Scriptum est enim hunc ad modum
· Ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσὶν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῳ οὐρανῳ, Πατὴρ, Λόγος, καὶ Πνεῦμα [
ἅγιον is omitted],
καὶ οὗτοι οἱ τρεῖς ἓν εἰσίν. καὶ τρεῖς εἰσὶν [
οἱ is omitted]
μαρτυροῦντες ἐν τῃ γῃ, πνεῦμα, ὕδωρ, καὶ αἷμα, εἰ τὴν μαρτυρίαν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, etc. Quanquam hand scio an casu factum sit, ut hoc loco non repetatur, quod est in Graecis nostris,
καὶ οἱ τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἓν εἰσίν. Ex hoc igitur codice Britannico reposuimus, quod in nostris dicebatur deesse: ne cui sit causa calumniandi. Quanquam et hunc suspicor ad Latinorum codices fuisse castigatum. Posteaquam enim Graeci concordiam inierunt cum Ecclesia Romana, studuerunt et hac in parte cum Romanis consentire.” (Ib. coll. 351-353.)
Therefore Erasmus in his third edition (1522) inserted verse 7, correcting two errors and supplying the omission at the end of verse 8 in what he called the Cod. Brit. (or Montfort MS.), which probably had the Acts and Epistles added about this very time to the Gospels written a few years before, as the Revelation was added by another hand later still — copied, it would seem, from the well-known Leicester MS. Erasmus put in the passage to keep his promise, not because he counted it genuine. Is it too strong to fear that a document so framed, which cannot be traced beyond a friar named Froy, and which came in so opportunely to supply an apparent authority for a Greek text (of which more presently) for the three heavenly witnesses, points to a dishonest source?
It is remarkable too, as Sir I. Newton noticed long ago, that there is a marginal note by the side of this passage in the Complut. Polyglot, as in 1 Cor. 15:51 and Matt. 6:13, where the Vulgate is in conflict with the Greek MSS. It is a pity, however, that they were not as explicit on 1 John 5:7 as there, and that they did not cleave to the Greek against the Latin, as they did in rejecting its absurd misrepresentation of 1 Cor. 15. 51. They do indeed cite Thomas Aquinas for 1 John 5:7. “Now to make Thomas thus in a few words do all the work was very artificial” (says Sir I. N., Works, vol. V. P. 522); “and in Spain, where Thomas is of apostolical authority, it might pass for a very judicious and substantial defence of the printed Greek. But to us Thomas Aquinas is no apostle. We are seeking for the authority of Greek manuscripts.”
To what then is the passage due? It is as clear as anything of the sort can be, that what we call verse 7 sprang from Augustine’s remarks on what now stands as verse 8, possibly suggested by words of Cyprian to a similar effect. Compare his treatise contra Maximinum Arian. Episcop. 1. ii. c. 22. (Tom. viii. col. 725, ed. Ben.) Not that the celebrated bishop of Hippo cites the passage: what he says is professedly his comment or gloss on the words spirit, water, and blood. “Si vero ea, quae his significata sunt, velimus inquirere, non absurde occurrit ipsa Trinitas, qui unus, solus, verus, summus est Deus, Pater, et Filius et Spiritus sanctus, de quibus verissime dici potuit, Tres sunt testes, et tres unum sunt: ut nomine Spiritus significatum accipiamus Deum Patrem: de ipso quippe adorando loquebatur Dominus ubi ait, Spiritus est Deus. (Id. iv. 24.) Nomine autem sanguinis Filium quia, verbum caro factum est. (Id. i. 14.) Spiritum sanctum,” etc. From the reputation of Augustine this fanciful idea at first gained currency and acceptance, though not always in precisely the original shape; then it seems to have been inserted in the margin as a gloss, till at length, through the ignorance of the transcribers and the clergy in general, it positively crept3 into that text which the Council of Trent, with a temerity as amazing as the lack of knowledge it betrays, pronounced authentic. Hence the danger of demoralising Roman Catholic scholars, some of whom, like R. Simon, were doomed to do a perpetual violence to their conscience, while others, bolder in evil, misdirect every weapon that ingenuity can devise to make the worse appear the better reason. Most, no doubt, entrench themselves with a sort of blind honesty in their last stronghold: they believe what the church believes — a pitiful answer where it is a question of revealed truth.
As to internal evidence, it is equally conclusive against the passage foisted in. To bear witness “in heaven” is nonsense; to say “on earth” is superfluous; for earth is the constant scene of testimony. Again, the Father and the Son are the true scriptural correlatives — never the Father and the Word, which last is in correlation with God, as we see in John 1. Further, since Pentecost the Holy Ghost is distinctively said to be sent down from heaven, and this with a view to the testimony of the gospel, instead of bearing record in heaven with the Father and the Son. Lastly, those who adopt the passage as it stands in the vulgar Latin copies are led to lower the character of the witness borne; for as they of course treat the first three as divine, so they regard the last three as earthly and created witnesses, making the
πνεῦμα to be no other than “the created soul of Christ which he breathed forth on the cross, thus witnessing that he was true man.” It would be awkward to make the same Spirit witness both in heaven and on earth.
Objections to the omission of verse 7 have been imagined, as many are aware, for various reasons, all of which seem to me weakness itself. 1. As to the supposed breach of connection, one has only to read verse 6 in order to be convinced that, on the contrary, the three heavenly witnesses come in most strangely between the water and the blood and the Spirit, of which that verse treated, and verse 8, which pursues the same subject. Internally therefore, as much as externally, verse 7 can only be viewed as an intrusion. The Trinity (fundamental a truth as it is, and without it Christianity is a myth) has no possible link with the context. Christ in death, yet withal life eternal, is the point on which the three witnesses converge with their one testimony. 2. The expression
οἱ μαρτυροῦντες, said of the Spirit, the water, and the blood, is no difficulty without verse 7, because they are evidently personified. 3. The wonder is great how Bishop Middleton, the able investigator of the usage of the Greek article, could have so palpably erred as to say that the
ἓν in verse 8 presupposes
ἓν in verse 7, and therefore that both verses stand or fall together. Previous reference is only one of the sources of the article.
Ἓν, I grant, might be used of the persons in the Trinity (compare John 10:30 for the Father and the Son); but
τὸ ἓν is absolutely necessary for the Spirit, the water, and the blood, where identity of nature is not in question but unity of scope. Compare Phil. 2:2. Other arguments, such as that founded on two editions of the Epistle, or on the influence of Arians, or on the negligence of transcribers, do not call for a detailed consideration in this place if at all.
Of the state and manner in which the passage is found in the few real or factitious Greek manuscripts that contain it, we may observe, (1) that both in the Graeco-Latin Cod. Ottobon. (Vat. 298) and in the Greek Cod. Montfort. (Trin. Coll. Dubl. G. 97) the three heavenly witnesses are set down without the Greek article to any one of them (
πατὴρ, λόγος, καὶ πνεῦμα ἅγιον)! — a construction which indicates not obscurely the hand of one used to Latin (which has no article) and grossly ignorant of Greek; (2) that the same Cod. Ottobon. gives
ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ, translated in the corresponding Latin by in celo, though not
ἀπὸ, as Scholz has strangely read, but,
ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς; (3) that whilst the Cod. Ottobon. represents that the Father, Word, and Holy Spirit (
εἰς τὸ ἓν εἰσὶ) “are to one purpose,” or agree in one, (translated by itself unum sunt!) the Cod. Montfort. says
ἓν εἰσὶ, “are one;” and both (like the Complut. Polyglot) leave out the grand point of the genuine scripture; for neither gives the smallest hint of the revelation that the three witnesses, the Spirit and the water and the blood, conspire in one testimony. I may say that the Montfort MS. unquestionably Latinizes elsewhere in 1 John, and in the immediate context, in opposition to all other Greek manuscripts.
As for the only other documents as yet produced in favour of the amplified text, suffice it to say that the Codex Ravianus of Berlin is now (as well as one of those at Wolfenbüttel) acknowledged to be a forgery, copying the very characters (in themselves peculiar) of the Complutensian Polyglot, and even repeating some of its misprints! That which Scholz cited as 173 in his list is the Codex Regius Neapolitanus, which in the text really confirms the truth, but adds on the margin in more recent characters the disputed clause. Here only, as compared with Codd. Ottobon. and Montfort., the article is duly inserted; but there is this unfortunate flaw in its value, that while the manuscript was written in the eleventh century, the addition cannot claim a higher antiquity than the sixteenth, if indeed so high. Such evidence as this might be easily multiplied by dishonest hands; but the weight of it all would be nil.
It may be worth while to mention, as corroborating the testimony to the source of this mistake, not without fraud, that its earliest known occurrence in Greek is in the Greek version of the Acts of the fourth Lateran Council (in 1215), where it stands thus -
ὅτι τρεῖς εἰσὶν οἱ μαρτυροῦντες ἐν οὐρανῳ ὁ πατὴρ, λόγος, καὶ πνεῦμα ἅγιον· καὶ τοῦτοι (sic!)
οἱ τρεῖς ἓν εἰσίν. εὐθύς τε προστίθησι . . . καθῶς ἐν τισὶ κώδηξιν (sic =
εὑρίσκεται. So the passage stands both in Hardouin’s Collection (tom. vii. p. 18) and in Mansi’s (tom. xxii. p. 984).I can hardly doubt that this it was which encouraged the Complutensian editors to venture on their daring importation into the Greek New Testament of a passage which, however well meant doctrinally, bears the indelible trace of human infirmity, even after Stunica and his companions did their best to make decent Greek of it by inserting
οὐρανῶ, ὁ before
τὸ before (not
ἅγιον πνεῦμα,4 correcting also
τοῦτοι, which was no doubt a blunder for
οὗτοι. But they went a little too far when they changed
εἰς τὸ ἓν after the first three, and left out
εἰς τὸ ἓν after
τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὸ ὕδωρ καὶ τὸ αἷμα where these words beyond controversy ought to be. No doubt they were guided by Latin copies made since Th. Aquinas’ day and that council. They refer in their marginal note to the perverse doctrine of Joachim on the Trinity, which was condemned at this very council of the Lateran.
If we turn to Thomas Aquinas, as referred to, the erroneous statement is sufficiently startling. He cites verse 7 as it stands in the later Latin copies, and reasons on the heterodoxy of Joachim, who applied the unity there, not to essence, but to affection and consent. Then, quoting verse 8, he says, “In quibusdam Libris attexitur: et hi tres unum sunt; sed hoc in veris exemplaribus non habetur (!), sed in quibusdam Libris dicitur esse appositum ab haereticis Arianis ad pervertendum intellectum sanum auctoritatis praemissae de unitate essentiali trium personarum (!!).” (Divi Thomae Aquinatis. Opera, tom. viii., p. 83, Venetiis, 1776.) This probably accounts for the omission of the clause that concludes verse 8 in the Complutensian Polyglot, as well as in some of the Greek copies manufactured after the fourth Lateran Council. Some excuse may be allowed for one like the “angelic doctor,” who was unacquainted with the Greek scriptures; but why then did he dogmatise on so serious a subject? Total ignorance is the only conceivable palliation of his assertions, which are notoriously opposed to truth. And what can one think of the deliberate sanction given to all this by Cardinal Ximenes and his editors in the renowned Polyglot of Alcala? Are we to shelter them also under such a plea? If not, what then?
Again, what can one judge of the knowledge or the moral integrity of keeping up such a note to 1 John 5:7 in modern reprints of Jerome’s works (e.g. the Abbé Migne’s, Paris, 1845) as the following? “Caeterum nota sunt pro ejus versiculi germanitate testimonia Patrum Africanorum, Tertulliani, Cypriani, Eugenii, Fulgentii, Vigilii, Victoris, e[t]quatuor centum Episcoporum in fidei professione, quam Vandalorum regi obtulerunt. Major omni exceptione est Cassiodorus,” etc. (Patrologiae Curs., tom. xxix., coll. 846.) Not to speak of the silence of the Greek fathers on a question of the Greek text, it has been proved repeatedly and minutely that not one of these could have read the passage in the Greek as it now appears in the Vulgate. All that can be fairly drawn from Victor Vitensis’ story of the symbol of faith presented by the African bishops to Hunneric is that the three heavenly witnesses must have been then read in their Latin copies. But it is certainly not so in the oldest and best Latin manuscripts that are extant, as all intelligent Romanists must know.
There is this peculiarity about the second Epistle of John, that it alone of all the inspired communications is directly addressed to a woman, and not this only but also to her children. There are certainly good but special reasons for a course so exceptional. We know how much the word of God, not to speak of every spiritual instinct, would lead a Christian woman however gifted to seek a place of retirement and of unobtrusive service.
We feel how all that is blessed of God’s grace, and I may add of God’s gift, is only so much the more set off when woman, while thoroughly using whatever the grace of the Lord entrusts to her, understands nevertheless the place in which it has pleased Him to put her here below. Yet here we have one of the most stringent epistles the Holy Ghost ever wrote addressed to a woman — the elect lady — and to her children, as the immediate objects of it, — not to an extraordinary apostolic commissioner, nor an elder, nor an assembly, still less an assembly with bishops and deacons. Why so? Because there was a question before the Holy Ghost of such unspeakable urgency and magnitude that all considerations must give way to it. God so ordered things that the Epistle should be sent to a woman originally, for the very purpose of showing that, whatever may be the ordinary ways of God in His church, there are occasions and seasons in which the very foundation of His grace and of His moral glory must be maintained at all cost. Wherever this ‘ is the case, no excuse can be tolerated on the score of sex or youth. Do not tell me that it is only a child or a woman. If Christ is in the question, all else must give way. Nor is this a sacrifice but real gain.
What has been remarked may serve to show us the all-absorbing consequence of what the Holy Ghost here takes in hand. Christ was undermined by those who held His name. It was a question of a true or of a false Christ. Sex was nothing now, youth not more to be considered — all very important when things flow on regularly and in their ordinary channels. We all know how unbecoming it would be for either the one or the other to be put forward, still more to put themselves there; but the Holy Ghost addresses Himself to them here. And we shall see, as is always the case, that what might seem an anomaly in the word of God, when properly looked into, will prove to be full of grave instruction for all our souls. No other conceivable address would have been so appropriate for the second Epistle of John.
Had the present been written in general terms, like the first Epistle, much would have been lost; just as, on the other hand, I could scarcely, for my own part, imagine the first Epistle written to the elect lady and her children. All is precisely as it should be. There we find points of universal interest to the children of God, and it is a question of addressing all this family, fathers, young men, and babes. But here, where the tide of evil was now setting in strongly, where searching enquiries must be on foot, where not the ordinary evils only were increasing in an ever and rapidly accumulating volume, but the deepest peril for the basis of all our hopes, the warning is addressed fittingly both to the family and to individuals. Where the first Epistle noticed these things in a general way to all, here we come to greater precision in the evil, and here too we have to do with particular persons.
How often one has heard it urged that it is not for a woman to take upon herself to judge, and that no wise man can mean to say that these are questions for children — that they are points of delicacy which most of all require deep theological knowledge and mature judgment; and would you expect the assembly of God to judge such matters? But the Holy Ghost here appeals to a woman and her children, and they are bound to judge; if they do not, Christ is set at nought for their own ease. It was now a question of Christ — the Christ of God. We shall see all this more clearly as we proceed. I am only now endeavouring to show the beautiful appropriateness of that which to a superficial eye might. seem somewhat out of order in the address of this Epistle. “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth.”
This is another very characteristic point in the second Epistle of John. Indeed it runs all through John. In the Gospel, as we know, Christ Himself is set forth expressly as the truth; and then his Epistles, as we have seen and may yet see, abound in the same tenacity to what was revealed by and in Christ. Here we find it still. It is interwoven into the very salutation of the epistle — “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth.” At once the issue is understood. What was at stake is here before the mind of those who read so remarkable an address. If Mary, about to become the mother of Jesus, might wonder at the singularity of the angel’s salutation, assuredly this was meant to search the conscience and stir the souls of the elect lady and her children, when an inspired apostle addresses to them a communication of unwonted solemnity. How great the grace of Christ, and infinite the condescension, that shows how precious is every believer to Him! We find nothing like this in any of the preceding epistles, as to the Galatians or the Romans, the Corinthians or the Ephesians, yet I do affirm that this is precisely what was wanted here. It was a more fundamental question, and the error more fatal. It was no defence or assertion of justification by faith. John is not setting forth the proper order of the assembly of God; nor is he leading the saint into the heavenly privileges of the individual or the body. Christ was in question or nothing. Nothing, did I say? Worse than nothing. It was either the Christ of God in all His divine glory, or the greatest evil into which a man can possibly be plunged by the enemy. It was, in short, war to the knife — the great controversy between Christ and antichrist. Solemn to think and say, the self-same crisis affects every soul now present!
I remember years ago reading a book by a celebrated character, who has now passed away from the scene, in which he dared to raise the question whether there was any particular sign in 2 or 3 John,5 why they should be accepted as divinely inspired, more than such compositions as the pastoral letters of Ignatius. It was not that the writer took the place of being an infidel: in fact he was Rector of the English College at Rome, and since a Cardinal in this country. This dreadful feature of ecclesiasticism is not so uncommon to find; namely, an infidel argument under the cowl of a monk or in the lips of their most learned professors. Therefore one must not be surprised if one ever so eminent ecclesiastically gave the plainest evidence that he had no faith in the word of God, that he did not participate in its power. Thus the strongest form of the assertion of church authority may really betray under its robes no better than vulgar infidelity. He asked6 how you would demonstrate from internal facts the inspiration of the second and third Epistles of St. John, finding in them neither a prophecy nor anything else which could not have been written by a very holy and pious magi, without any aid whatsoever from inspiration! The same poisonous argument taints in a still baser and more audacious form Dr. Milner’s “End of Controversy:” indeed it pervades Romanism as a whole, and proves its essentially infidel character.
I think, my brethren, that our experience might supply ample ground for an answer, though probably not of such a character as would satisfy one who could make such an objection. There is a day coming when judgment will decide; but conscience, acted upon by the Holy Ghost, can form a conviction now — not of course infallibly, for God alone is or can be infallible — but adequately for the need of the soul. I do say, that the loss would have been immense if we had not had even these two Epistles, putting the matter on no higher ground than this. I need not say that I refuse to treat a question of scripture on a mere ground of utility. Still, we are certain that God has written nothing in vain; and if in a grave crisis of late any one scripture was needed and must have been missed, without which we might have found ourselves at a loss how to act firmly under as trying circumstances as ever befell any soul in this room, or any other, it would have been precisely the second Epistle of John.
The apostle then lets them know that he loved them all in the truth; for a believer, young or old, man, woman, or child, is best loved, just for the sake of the truth. He that departs from the truth, what is he? A rebel. But they that walk in the truth, even were they children or ever so lowly, are precious to God; and His Spirit waits on such, and writes to them, and lays on them to decide before God, in their own sphere of duty, this most grave question: “Is my soul in communion with God about His own Son? Whatever may be the reputation of others, whatever my own weakness and call to walk humbly, do I feel that the one thine, which is to determine all others for me is the truth, the truth of Christ Himself?” If it be so, all else will in the main be right. Hence John writes to this effect to the elect lady, whom he loved in truth, and to her children. Nor was this affection of a personal or circumstantial character: “Whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth.” The revelation of God in Christ does, by the Holy Spirit, bind together in love all who know the truth. It was on account of the truth that he now wrote — as it is said, “for the truth’s sake.”
How unweariedly he puts forward that which was now to test them severally! (verse 2.) “For the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us for ever. Grace be with you, mercy and peace.” As has been often and truly remarked, where individuals are thus before the mind of the Spirit of God, the need of “mercy” is supposed and shown. “From God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” — an expression found, as far as I remember, nowhere else. It was just in its right place here. Satan was undermining the glory of “the Son of the Father.” But if He be not this, how can I go to Him? How rest my soul, my all, on Him? How can God look to Him and His work for every soul that is brought to Himself?
Hence the apostle’s source of joy. “I rejoiced greatly that I found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received a commandment from the Father.” Walking in truth is the result of having the truth. The truth produces truthfulness. The man who has not got the truth cannot possibly walk in truth, and will not long wear the semblance of it. To walk thus was the effect of the truth itself known: they walked in truth, “according as we received commandment from the Father.”
“And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another.” It was the old, but ever new word: old, because it was manifested in Christ Himself; new, because it is true in us as in Him. Divine love flows from love, and reproduces itself in all who know Christ the truth. But what is love? “And this is love:” not independency of each other, not agreeing to differ, or any of those inventions of men which are not only a departure from the truth, but in point of fact morally evil and injurious. “This is love, that we walk after his commandments.” You cannot separate it from Christ; you cannot separate it from obedience. It is love in exercise, and it is also love that is communicated by faith in Jesus. “This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.”
Now he gives the reason why he writes thus solemnly to this lady and her children. “For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” “Many deceivers are entered into the world;” and therefore it is needful, yea imperative, to press the claims of the truth of God. “Who confess not Jesus Christ coming in the flesh.” It is put here rather differently from its shape in the first Epistle. There the allusion was to the fact, but this as stamping a permanent character on Christ — the Christ that came. Here it is not so much a question of His having come, but, as it seems to me, indicating if possible a deeper shade of infidelity. No doubt the same persons are referred to, but it would seem as having developed their infidelity rather more. For there is the rejection not only of the fact, but even of its possibility. They conceived the thought that in some way or another it was derogatory to Him. They denied, some His deity, some His humanity.
In commenting on 1 John 4, I have already remarked that “Jesus Christ come in the flesh” supposes neither His deity alone, nor His humanity only, but both, There is no propriety in the expression, it appears to me, unless it means both united in the same person. In point of fact it is the veering to one side or the other — choosing a part of the truth of Christ so as to set aside the rest’ that is so fruitful a source of error here and everywhere, though here most fatally. “This is the deceiver and the antichrist.” It is far worse than bringing in division and offence, bad as these are; nay, it is far more serious than even the undermining of morality, ruinous as this must be. To sap or corrupt morality is no doubt to destroy oneself, and perhaps often others; but this is to defame and degrade Christ, the Son of the Father. This, then, is a bolder effort of Satan, and therefore John calls one guilty of it not only “the deceiver” (every false teacher is more or less a deceiver), but in this case also “the antichrist.”
Hence he calls them to look at home diligently lest they should stray. For God alone keeps the soul, and this by and in the truth. “Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought,” (of which the apostles had been the instrument,) “but that we receive a full reward.”
Then he lays down the great principle in verse 9: — Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” It is a larger principle than simply denying Christ coming in the flesh. No matter where it is, or how it is, if you overthrow the person of Christ, you transgress the doctrine of Christ. In the seventh verse we had a particular case; but from it the Spirit of God rises up to this statement of truth which meets every such cue. “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ” (that is, in the teaching which the Holy Ghost has given in His word about Christ, not about His work, but about His person), “hath not God” in any sense or measure, now that Christ is preached.
The greatest error about His work is not so directly fatal to the soul, because it does not so immediately assail the personal glory of the Lord Jesus. Here it is the doctrine of Christ Himself; and as one must beware of straying at first, let him also beware of not continuing in the doctrine of Christ. A man might have professed His name, and gone on some time with the assembly of God, accepted as a believer, or even a teacher; but if he does not abide in the truth of Christ, it does not signify what he may have been, it matters not in the least how much he may seemingly have been blessed, it is all over with him if he does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, and it becomes a necessity, not merely for the safety of oneself and others, but for God’s glory, which is concerned here more sensitively than anywhere else. “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.”
It might be said that at any rate a man might have the truth of the Old Testament, as there were such before Christ was manifested in the world; and if the person fails to enter into all the truth that Christianity has told out, can he be worse off than those who lived and died before Jesus came? The answer is that such special pleading is all in vain; he is incomparably guiltier and worse off, because now the standard is not what God once gave, but what He is giving now in a Christ fully revealed. Therefore it will not do to talk of what others knew not. This is an important practical criterion; because, although not to the same extent, it does meet the difficulty which people constantly allege founded on what their forefathers did — possibly excellent men — two or three hundred years ago. What is that to the present moment? If God by His Spirit causes His truth to reach us in a form and power suited to this day, if God brings it home more clearly on this point or that, these are the things which put the soul under a fresh responsibility; and this seems indicated in the form in which the Spirit of God deals with the error here. “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.” It is not only that he lacks the blessedness of the Christian revelation, but he has not God — he has no part nor lot with God at all. The Old Testament saints had God variously revealed. They received His word and rejoiced, according to the measure of their faith, in the truth as God then made it known to them. But now that Christ is come, now that the Holy Ghost has been sent down, now that the unfolding of Christ’s personal glory, of His exaltation, and of the infinite grace of His work, has been proclaimed, it is altogether hopeless to seek a cover of present unbelief under the ignorance of past years. It is the present unfolding of God’s mind that puts every soul to the test. Therefore not to accept it, and not to abide in it when it is received, to go back from it or to transgress, swerving to one side or the other, or abandoning it, comes to the same substantial sin and ruin.
On the other hand, here. is the comfort for the elect lady and her children, and for any one else who cleaves to the truth. “He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” There is great blessedness in thus abiding, brethren; it is a grand thing not to be easily shaken, not to be moved to and fro by every wind of doctrine, more particularly in anything about Christ. Beware of this. Weigh seriously every thought, no matter from whom it may come — any word that even seems to turn you away from what you have, and to weaken the assurance you have from God. Never allow yourself to be shaken from old truth, if indeed you have it and know it. At the same time always hold your soul open for more; and take care that you do not confound notions you have gathered (perhaps from tradition, possibly from your own mind) with the truth of Christ, lest, when the tradition is touched, you may begin to yield to the spirit of unbelief, and either give up truth you used (or seemed at least) to hold, or burst out against the truth of God in others who know it better than yourself.
In these things assuredly we need to have the promised guidance of the Holy Ghost. We cannot start or go on without it, nor would we do so even if we could. It is the very blessedness of our souls to be kept by so holy a guide and in safe companionship. But then, just as in our ordinary walk, if we live in the Spirit, we must walk in the Spirit; so also, if we have been taught of the Spirit, we must go forward and persevere in the Spirit. This does not in the smallest degree clash with “abiding.” The only way to be kept is holding fast what God has really taught us, yet using this as the groundwork for making progress. Such is the true way to “abide.” “He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.”
Now that the doctrine of Christ is fully brought out in the word of God, the more sure it is that there is nothing to add. Impossible to discover a truth of God that is not already in the Bible. But there is not a little to learn which, I am persuaded, is there already. We must not confound these two things. Who would assume that you and I know all that is in the Bible? If then a line of truth be pointed out anywhere in scripture, do not calumniously pretend that it is some further development, because you have been so dull as not to see it. It is the very point of faith to know that as God Himself is infinite, so His word contains boundless riches for us. There is that which may by the Holy Ghost be always apprehended more and more fully; and yet after all it is the same holy deposit as was given to the Christian from the beginning.
The apostle now comes to the practical consequence. He has laid down the principle in the ninth verse: now comes the practice. “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” Mark how it is put. It is not — bring not the true humanity, or the proper Deity; because Satan might change the doctrine somewhat, so as to save appearances for the simple. Therefore it would not do merely to specify some one particular form of error, because then the devil would have only to evade that form, and there would be no resource. But here it stands firm yet comprehensive: if a man come to you, and does not bring this doctrine (that is, the doctrine of Christ do not you receive him. No matter what may be the particular manner in which the enemy has warped his soul, and through him dishonoured Christ; no matter what may be the peculiar nature of the false doctrine, — if a man come to you, and bring not the divinely revealed doctrine, the Holy Ghost’s teaching of Christ in the written word, — “receive him not into your house, neither bid him greeting.” That is to say, do not bid him a common salutation. There is nothing about “God speed” in the word (
χαίρειν), though “good speed” might be tolerable. The stronger terms are merely put in by the English translators. It was the ordinary form of courteous greeting every day.
This is to my mind a serious thought. Do you think, my brethren, that we all follow this out as we ought? Are we not conscious of shrinking from the cost, and of a fear if not anxiety lest we should be counted uncourteous? I can speak for one certainly; and I doubt much whether in general we are sufficiently alive to the solemnity of what Satan is always pursuing. More particularly let me add, that we stand in a position, failure in which tends to expose all God’s children to the efforts of the enemy. There are none, I presume, whom he would so much desire to drag into the mire, and thus defile the name of Jesus.
If then such an one come, of course without the doctrine, yet taking the ground of truth, you are to receive him not. Where? To the Lord’s table? No; this could not have been said to the elect lady and her children. The exhortation is quite independent of public fellowship. The question of the Lord’s table is not even raised. They are not even to receive him into their private house, nor to accost him with common greeting. Why this most severe and peremptory exclusion? “For he that biddeth him greeting” (not so much as receiving him into the house, but interchanging words of courtesy with such a man, knowingly, of course, and deliberately) “is a partaker of his evil deeds.” You, as a confessor of Christ, put your sanction on this denier of Christ. You could not do worse except deny Christ yourself; indeed, in a certain sense you are more guilty than even if you were drawn for a time into the abominable thing yourself, because then you would be honestly acting out what you had been deceived by Satan into believing; but the more you hold the true Christ, if you tamper with those who do not, the more shameless you are in unfaithfulness to Christ.
To some this may seem strong; but who has written it? who urges it? Is it a man without God? Is it not the Spirit of God who charges us in the name of the Lord Jesus thus sensitively to feel for the truth of Christ? Let us not be deaf to such a claim from such a person. Let us not reserve our warm feelings for our friends, and leave only indifference for the name of Jesus. He that greets kindly the man that brings not the doctrine of Christ is a traitor to Christ.
Let me here repeat that it is not “God speed,” for this might give a false idea. It sounds as if we were wishing him well in his work. This would be commonly inferred by one unaccustomed to read the language of the Holy Ghost. But it conveys nothing of the sort — merely a Greek “good morning” — what would pass in the current language of the day among one’s fellows.
He then who has anything to say to the defamer of Christ which could be fairly interpreted as a sanction, let it be ever so small, becomes a partaker of his evil deeds. It is not a question of being a partner in his evil doctrine. The elect lady and her children were of course believed to hold sound doctrine; but they are here peremptorily called to refuse any measure of countenance to one who did not bring the doctrine of Christ — not only not to receive him into the house, but not to salute him outside it. It was a part of the loyalty they owed to Christ.
John concludes thus: “Having many things to write to you, I would not with paper and ink: but I hope to come to you, and speak mouth to mouth, that your joy may be full. The children of thine elect sister greet thee.” There was hearty love, but it was only in the truth, of which Christ alone is the test and obedience the effect.
THE THIRD EPISTLE OF JOHN again calls us to weigh the Lord’s admirable wisdom in its address, — “The elder unto the well-beloved Gaius,” — as we have, I trust, been satisfied of the same in the second Epistle’s address to “the elect lady and her children.” Without the third Epistle we should have an immense loss; for here too we may meet the unbelieving slight already noticed in a scribe of this age by a direct assertion of its living value. A precious and needed supplement is supplied especially for these evil days. If we had only the second without the third Epistle of John, we should have the negative side without the positive — the evil warned against rather than the good enforced. Both are most needful. What would have been the effect of the second Epistle of John, if that alone of the two had been ours at the present moment? I have sought to show how admirable it is — matchless for its own purpose — and impossible to supply its place from any other part of scripture, yet in thorough accordance with it all. It is admitted that the principle of the Epistle is found all through the New Testament; but the strength of the application, the incisive edge of its holy jealousy for Christ, is only to be found there. Yet, supposing we had not the third of John, what would be the too sure effect? I am persuaded we should be in danger of becoming painfully narrow; we should be in constant dread of an antichrist in those that surrounded us; we should do little but search with suspicion, lest each new comer to the house should not bring the doctrine of Christ.
Now we are not called to be thus on the watch for another’s evil. We ought never to be suspicious. It is not faith, but flesh that expects iniquity. On the other hand, if a man comes and does not bring the doctrine of Christ, it is not to be branded as suspicion or want of love if one regard him as antichrist. It is according to the truth we love, and is the wisdom that comes from above; nay, it is real obedience and loyalty to Christ. But to allow doubts and questions of one who neither in himself nor in his associations makes light of Christ’s glory is inexcusable. Here comes one bearing the Lord’s name, not without a Barnabas who knows and can commend him: to indulge in surmises, if without the least evidence of this or that about him, is clearly not according to Christ. It is here, I think, that we may learn more of the value and special function of this third Epistle of John, which is as decided in the cherishing of warm affections towards the faithful servants of the Lord, as the second Epistle was peremptory in its warning against the allowance of the profession of Christ’s name, to shut our eyes to the fact that there are men who abuse that name to overthrow His person and truth.
The third Epistle accordingly is not addressed to a lady and her children. This would not suit its object. Too often, as we know, ladies and their children want no exhortation to go forth with sufficiently warm affection after preachers. This is notorious. There are few more common snares in the church of God than the undue influence which some exercise, if they do not seek, over females and young people. I do not speak of such as seek the conversion of souls, but of those whose zeal goes forth in unedifying questions which form parties, chiefly through the medium of women and children. Undoubtedly this has always been the case. If you search through the history of the church, you will invariably find that where men have wrong purposes in view, they do not seek intelligent men, — those who can take and keep their ground, still less those to whom God has given grace as faithful servants of independent judgment: they shrink from these, and avoid a conference which might be profitable, getting into holes and corners, where they can at leisure indoctrinate their little coteries with the doctrines that they bring in privily.
Of all this and more we have had sorrowful experience. It is not a thing we have merely read about others in bygone days. We have seen and known it ourselves: its grief we have bitterly felt; and we ought to mention this snare, and could not refrain, if indeed we have love for the children of God and jealousy for the glory of Christ. Undoubtedly then it remains true that there is the solemn fact of Satan’s enmity, and of his using those who bear the name of Christ to overthrow His glory, as far as he can. It is the Holy Ghost who warns of this, though the word and experience prove how mighty He is in behalf of the love and glory of Christ. For indeed there are men faithful and true to that name; and we are as much bound to go forth with loving desire and succour, to cheer and help them in every way, showing honour to them, as again we are responsible that no circumstances, no past reputation, no present amiability, no ties of flesh and blood, no consideration of any human sort, shall weaken our solemn separation from and abhorrence of that which overthrows Jesus.
This third Epistle then is addressed to Gaius — no doubt a truly hospitable and gracious man. We all know too well that men are apt to be somewhat selfish. Women, as we must be aware, are even by nature characterised by affection. Men, if they have what one looks for from them, ought to have a little judgment; but then their judgment may be warped by selfishness, though no doubt this may be often concealed, perhaps from themselves, by pleas of prudence and so forth. Women, as a class, have warmer and quicker affections,
Here then the wisdom of God is very observable. The kindest of men require to be stirred up, and need to be exhorted strongly as to what they owe to those who go forth in the name of the Lord Jesus. With women this is hardly to be pressed. On the contrary, as a general rule, they rather call for a little cooling down. But as for men, I have rarely seen the man that was not in want of an occasional admonition or encouragement in this kind of love. Do we not recognize in a new form the wisdom of our God? “The elder unto the well-beloved Gains, whom I love in the truth.” He was already a large-hearted man, but he was none the worse for being somewhat cheered on. There is a danger of being disheartened in these labours of love. There are many difficulties and many disappointments, and there is no man who may not sometimes need a word from God to keep his courage up, and his confidence in the Lord, that the springs of his love may flow fresh and strong.
Here we have the fact that to the “well-beloved Gains” the apostle writes with this intent. He loved him also in the truth. Whether it was the elect lady and her children, or the well-beloved Gaius, it is all the same thing. It was not because of his hospitality, but “whom I love in the truth.” No doubt the apostle did much value his generosity and care; but even in matters wholly different from those of his second Epistle, the distinguishing feature which presses on his soul was this: — “whom I love in the truth.” “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” He was not indifferent even as to the bodily well-being of Gains. The Holy Ghost thus inspires him to write it. It is not a private letter, nor was it an uninspired codicil added to what was inspired; but here it stands in a genuine apostolic epistle, written by John the elder to his brother. He wished that he might prosper and be in health, even as his soul prospered. “For I rejoiced greatly, when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in thee, even as thou walkest in truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.” It was sweet to the apostle to hear such a testimony to the steadfastness of Gaius in the truth, as it was to hear of all he loved.
“Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and this7 strangers.” The common text and our English version seem a little peculiar in the phraseology here, conveying the idea that these strangers were not brethren. This clearly was not the intention. He has before his mind brethren that were strangers. It was not merely brethren that lived in the place where Gains was: this might be a manifest token of happy friendship. But there was a greater proof of love and hospitality in the kindness he practised to stranger brethren, to Christians whom he did not know. “Which have borne witness of thy love before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey worthily of God, thou shalt do well: for on account of the name they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to take up such, that we might be fellow-helpers to the truth.”
This was a special claim on brethren. They did not throw themselves on man, on the world, on nature, but on Christ only. It was for His name’s sake they went forth. They looked nowhere else; and the apostle says, “We therefore ought to take up such” — not ye but “we.” How beautifully he who lay on Jesus’ bosom puts himself along with Gaius! Had the apostle been placed in the same circumstances as Gains, no doubt he would have done so; but his place as apostle did not absolve him from the practical manifestation of love to servants of the Lord who might be in a position altogether different from his own. That this is the case is most evident, because in the verse but, one before he says “thou;” in the verse after he says “I.” Unquestionably then, when he changes the “thou” either to “we” or to “I,” he means what he says.
Thus we find that if there was sorrow expressed in the second Epistle at finding the deceivers and the antichrist seeking an entrance among the simple, in the third Epistle there is the joy of welcoming these faithful brethren who went forth for Christ, and his loving hospitable heart who is thus praised by the Holy Ghost, and his name indelibly recorded in the scriptures of truth with theirs as fellow-labourers.
But the bright picture has its shade. “I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the pre-eminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church.”
We have another evil designated very clearly here. Diotrephes is the scriptural example of the clerical tribe, as contra-distinguished from the ministry of Christ There is no service, because there is no love. He is the representative of the spirit which opposes the free action of the Holy Ghost, setting itself even against apostolic authority in order to gain or maintain his own individual pre-eminence. Self-importance, jealousy of those over us, impatience of others equally called to serve, scorn of the assembly, yet sometimes humouring the least worthy for its own ends — such are the characteristics of clericalism. I do not mean in clergymen only; for there are men of God incomparably better than their position tends to make them; as on the other hand this evil thing is nowhere so offensive as where the truth that is owned wholly condemns it.
If Diotrephes had been called to serve the Lord, of which there is little appearance, were there not hundreds and thousands not less truly called to the same work as servants of Christ by a title from Christ not less real than what he held himself? Was he not bound to respect the title of others? You cannot plead the title of Christ for yourself without maintaining the authority of Christ for another. He who does so honestly and truly could not possibly claim an exclusive title. This was precisely what Diotrephes did, and it is the distinctive point of the clerical system. It is not a question of ministry, nor even of what people call “stated ministry.” Who doubts stated ministry? At the same time who can deny that God uses servants of His who are not stated? I believe that He maintains His own title in the church of God to raise a man up to say a word, and it may be an important word, who might not be called on to speak again, — only used for a particular purpose. God of old reserved such a right, and certainly He has not given it up now.. no doubt there is a variety of ways in which He employs those who may not have any well defined place in the church of God. To abolish all these to a dead level for himself to lead and govern was the unchecked desire of Diotrephes. It is nothing more, if not less, than we often see now. Supposing persons have large gifts, the more can they afford to give the fullest scope to the lesser gifts; nor is there any surer sign of weakness in one’s work than any unwillingness to accredit the work of others. He that values his own call on the Lord’s part to serve Him is bound by all means to hold in His name the door open for every one that is called to labour. But so Diotrephes did not. Did he profess to desire only what edified most, and so set himself against lesser gifts? He dared to rise up against the apostle himself. The truth is, he cared for himself, and loved to have the pre-eminence. We have no reason to gather that he loved anything or anybody else. Such was the man who had ventured to oppose John; and, as we see, the apostle says he would remember him. The Lord did not forget it.
But he could not close the Epistle with anything so painful. Turning to a happier theme, he says, “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God.”
How the key-note of the first Epistle is heard right through the last! If there were self-exalting men with and without gift, office, or influence, others there are of a different mind. “Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true.”
Then with the salutation he closes. “I had many things to write to thee, but I wish not with ink and pen to write to thee: but I hope to see thee, and we will speak mouth to mouth soon. Peace be to thee. The friends salute thee. Greet the friends by name.” There are minute differences of interest between this conclusion and that of the second Epistle, but I avoid details and pass on.
1 *The first “know” is in the present, this (the second) in the perfect,
ἐγνώκαμεν, which means (not “have known,” but) “have the knowledge of.”
2 * “Quia tamen optime fluit contextus si hoc membrum addatur, et video in optimis ac probatissimis fidei codicibus haberi, ego quoque libenter amplecter.” — Comm. in loc. Ed. Genev. p. 74.
3 * Jerome (Epist. cvi. ad Sunn. et Fret.) speaks of a similar course of mistake in copying his own version. “Et miror quomodo e latere Adnotationem nostram nescio quis temerarius scribendam in corpore putaverit, quam nos pro eruditione legentis scripsimus hoc modo,” etc. (S. Hieronymi Opp. tom. i. p. 659, Ed. Ben.) But we need not go outside the commonly received text of the Greek New Testament in order to find another instance of what was first a marginal gloss, which at length crept into the text; for such seems to be the history of Acts 8:37. It is curious that here the conditions are reversed as between Erasmus and the Complutensian editors; for he owns the verse wanting in his Greek copies, yet inserts it in deference to the Latin, whilst they follow the Greek spite of the Latin.
4 * Hence Calecas in the fourteenth century, and Bryennius in the fifteenth, as Bishop Marsh noticed, being native Greeks, and feeling the deficiency of the Lateran Acts in Greek, wrote
ὁ λόγος καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον. The copyist of the Montfort MS. omitted the article even before
πατὴρ, not to speak of the other words which require it.
5 *”I would ask you, for instance, how you would demonstrate (I will not speak now of the books of the Old Testament; I will take that for granted, from the historical evidence, that our Saviour and His apostles received them as sufficient to satisfy you with regard to them; but Christians are more particularly interested in the New Testament) how you would demonstrate from internal facts the inspiration of the second and third Epistles of St. John, finding in them neither a prophecy nor any thing else that could not have been written by a very holy and pious man, without any aid from inspiration. In some, indeed, of the Epistles of St. Paul you will find it exceedingly difficult to discover passages so decidedly proving a divine assistance in him who wrote them as to satisfy you that they were inspired.” — Lectures (p. 28) on the Doctrines and Practices of the Roman Catholic Church, etc. By the Rev. Nicholas Wiseman, D.D., etc. London: Hodson, Fleet Street. 1836.
6 In the corrected edition of this lecture I find, “What internal mark of inspiration can we discover in the third epistle of St. John to show that the inspiration sometimes must have been granted here? Is there anything in that epistle which a good and pious pastor of the primitive ages might not have written? anything superior (!) in sentiment or doctrine (!!) to what an Ignatius or a Polycarp might have indited?” (Lect. ii. p. 38, ed. 1836.) Truly “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God . . . neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
7 * The reading of the most ancient and best MSS. and Versions is
τοῦτο (and not as in Text. Rec.
εἰς τοὺς) ξ.