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The Christian reader will, I trust, bear with a few words rather personal. For no one living has nearer or deeper reasons to praise God for these Epistles than he who presents this exposition. The First of the Three was exceedingly blessed to his soul more than sixty years ago. He had been converted to God without human instrumentality, but was still cast down under the sense of indwelling sin. The witness of God in 1 John 5:9, 10, was suggested by a Christian friend as His answer to the questions which harassed me; and the Holy Spirit used it to give rest thenceforth in the Son of God and His atoning work.
Since then it has been a great delight, first to learn, and as learnt to teach other Christians in my little measure. For almost all the believers I knew found it particularly hard to make this precious portion of Scripture their own. This was not from any difficulty in the language, which is of the simplest, but partly from their own spiritual lack, and partly from the depth of the truth in unfolding the Saviour’s personal dignity and the fulness of His grace toward the children of God. Thus they were slow even to apprehend, still more to enjoy, the fellowship to which the apostle invites with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.
After the labours of many a year, and in most parts of Great Britain, and a little abroad also, in helping souls to search especially into these Epistles by the Spirit’s grace, I am thankful to send out the volume, however short of what one could wish. But He who inspired this written word will not fail to guide into the truth those who wait on Him for it. May the reader count on divine love in Christ, and have his joy made full, as what John wrote was given for this express end.
W.K. London, April 20. 1905.
The First Epistle.
The plan or structure of this short but great Epistle is simple. Its foundation is laid in the four opening verses of 1 John 1, the incarnate Word of life. For the eternal life, the which. was with the Father, was manifested to chosen witnesses in the fullest way possible; and what they had seen and heard they reported to the believers, that they might have the same fellowship as the apostles (Acts 2:42). And indeed that fellowship was without a rival: fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things write “we” (as it were in the name of all) to you, that your joy may be made full.
With this manifestation of God in Christ goes inseparably the message of Christian responsibility in verses 5-10. It brings, God’s character in light to bear on the walk of all who call on the Lord’s name, and shows the radical inconsistency of those who say without doing.
A supplement is added in 1 John 2:1, 2, where the Father’s name, omitted in the testing part of 1 John 1, reappears. For though till are charged not to sin, if anyone does, divine love works to restore; and we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ not only righteous but the propitiation for our sins, and in a more general way for the whole world.
How then is reality in the Christian proved? This is shown in 3-11. Primarily in obedience (3-6), but as necessarily also in love (7-11), evidencing positively the genuine, negatively the spurious.
Next we have an episode on the differing degrees of maturity in the family of God from 12 to 28. They as a whole are the dear children (
τεκνία) as in 1 John 2:1, 12, 28, 1 John 3:7, 18, 1 John 5:21, to whom the apostle writes, because their sins, have been forgiven them for the sake of Christ’s name. But within this instructive parenthesis the family has (1) “fathers,” because they had known Him that is from the beginning, the eternal Word manifested in flesh; (2) “young men,” because they were strong with the word of God abiding in them, and they had overcome the wicked one; and (3) “the little children,” because they had known the Father. The apostle goes over the ground again, simply repeating the same for the fathers, but enlarging for the young men, and still more for the little children as being specially objects of antichrists seeking to mislead, and therefore specially guarded.
Then from 1 John 2:28 the general address is resumed with exhortation to the “dear children” as a whole to abide in Christ, that if manifested as He surely will be, the labourers with whom the apostle puts himself should have boldness, instead of shame through their defection. Hence righteousness in practice is the witness of being begotten of God (ver. 29). Here again the apostle turns off into a short but seasonable digression in 1 John 3:1-3 on the Father’s love, the necessary motive and power to strengthen and cheer the soul in the strait path of practical righteousness. Then fitly follows in verses 4-7 Christ’s person and work in absolute separateness from sin, and efficacy in taking our sins away, to impress that everyone that abides in Him sins not, and that everyone that sins has not seen nor known Him. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the contrast with those of the devil, first, of the righteousness in principle and practice of God’s children, secondly from ver. 11 of their mutual love, unlike Cain and the world where hatred reigns. Only God looks for reality even to the utmost, and in small things as well as great; as we ought to cherish boldness of our hearts before Him which call only be in obedience and believing the name of His Son Jesus Christ. And where one thus obeys, he abides in God and God in him of which the Spirit given is the power.
Here however is special need of discernment; and the truth is essential that we be not misled. Accordingly the guard is furnished in 1 John 4:1-6. The first test against error is Jesus Christ come in flesh whom the Holy Spirit always glorifies; whereas the spirit that confesses Him not is not of God. The second is not the law and the prophets (divinely inspired is they were), but the new testimony of Christ by apostles and prophets. He that knows God hears us; he that is not of God does not hear us. The New Testament also is indispensable to guard against the spirit of error.
Then from 1 John 4:7 the subject of mutual love is resumed in the fullest flow, as shown to be of God, and inseparable from loving and knowing Him. This brings us the manifestation of God’s love in our case, because He has sent His only-begotten Son that we might live through Him, for we were dead, and yet more that He might die as propitiation for our sins, for we were indeed guilty. Surely then if God so loved us, we ought to love one another: and if we do, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us, instead of being hindered. As Christ at the beginning declared the God that none saw, this is the call on us now. And there is adequate power in that He his given us of His Spirit; and this in every confessor that Jesus is the Son of God, according to the testimony that the Father sent the Son as Saviour of the world: His love in us which we have known and believed. Nor is this its full height. For the love is made perfect with us that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because even as He is, so also we are in this world: a statement all the more amazing when compared with 3:2. Thus is fear expelled by perfect love, and it call be fully said, We love, because He first loved us. The chapter ends with exposing the false pretension to love God and not one’s brother: they necessarily go together.
1 John 5:1-5 supposes and answers the question, Who is our brother? “Everyone that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God.” Thus the apostle points to the higher side of the relationship, but he is no less explicit that loving the Father involves loving the child, and that the proof of loving His children is, in loving Him and keeping His commandments. Loving Him is to obey; and His commands are not grievous but good and full of blessing and comfort. Nor need one wonder; for whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world; and faith it is which has gained that victory. Do you ask for more precision? “Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God.”
In verses 6-12 we have the three witnesses and one testimony to Jesus and the truth in Him, the Spirit, the water, and the blood: not purification and atonement only, but the Holy Spirit the realising power. In the first man were sin and death; life eternal is in the Second so as to enjoy in the Spirit, the Father, and the Son; which could only be, because He has given and we have it in His Son.
The conclusion is from verse 13. As the apostle the incarnate Son as the object of faith and means of this wondrous fellowship unto fulness of joy, so he ends with saying that he wrote these things that we might know in our inner consciousness that as believers we have life eternal. He again speaks of the boldness such grace inspires in asking what consists with God’s will; only he excepts the case where a brother is under the discipline of God for sinning in special circumstances, and therefore left no more here below. In the closing words from 18 the apostle meets the rising vapours of Gnosticism, ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth, with the deep and bright inward consciousness of the saints, first in an abstract way in preservation against sin and Satan, for everyone begotten of God; second in our personal knowledge that we are of God, and thus contrasted with the whole world in the power of the wicked one; and third, in the same personal knowledge of the great object of faith, the Son, with the understanding He has given to know the True One, and to be in Him, in His Son Jesus Christ: He is the true God and life eternal. He too is the safeguard from idols.
The Second And Third Epistles.
These are so simple in their object and structure, however important for the truth and those that love it, as to need but few words. The sister, all unnamed lady, is solemnly warned not to receive one untrue to the doctrine of Christ, i.e. of His person, the foundation and the substance of all truth. The brother, who of course is named, is exhorted in the face of personal or party opposition to persevere in the love which had characterised him, to receive faithful souls, though strangers, who went forth for the Name. The wisdom as well as the value of these letters is great. Women in particular might feel no small difficulty in refusing plausible men who seemed zealous in the Lord’s work. It might be an evangelist once blessed in winning souls; or an elder like some in Ephesus of whom Paul spoke as getting astray. But when the spirit of error is abroad, truth decides and not office merely can avail. On the other hand the good brother is not to be alarmed by the anger of a Diotrephes but is to welcome such as go forth truly for the Lord’s name, and thus encourage a Demetrius who might otherwise be frowned down. How admirably the Holy Spirit led to counsels for guiding us in the evil day!