John’s epistles are a great example of why context, following an author’s train of thought, and appreciating an author’s unique style are so incredibly important. John assumes his audience can see the beautiful themes he has expertly woven into the fabric of the text. Therefore, we run the risk of completely misunderstanding any single verse when we rip it from its context to use it as an isolated prooftext. Here are some of the things I noticed when I sat down and read 1, 2, and 3 John in one sitting.
The Gospel of John
The resemblance in themes between John’s gospel account and the epistles of John is striking. He continually explores the ideas of light, life, love, and truth. As I read several times through 1 John, I couldn’t help but feel there was a circular pattern to the book. The ideas of light, life, love, and truth continued to swirl around and around in concentric circles. And in the short books of 2 and 3 John, these themes are apparent as well.
For John, these themes are intimately connected. Jesus is the light of the world that has broken into a world of darkness and is transforming his people into light-bearers by giving them life, love, and truth. This light is continuing to grow and will someday fill the whole world. The darkness will be completely dispelled and there will eventually be nothing but light in the world.
In a practical sense, when we are people of truth and love, we participate with God in being light and dispelling darkness. John writes, “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling.”
Therefore, reading 1, 2, and 3 John serves a great introduction to John’s gospel account. By reading these short epistles, you can see that in his gospel account John is not just giving a historical biography on Jesus, but is giving a robust theological treatise on what it means for Jesus, the Son of Man, to be reigning with God as King.
A World of Stark Contrast
In John’s epistles, he presents things in stark contrast. There is very little nuance or gray area. Everything is either:
- Light or Dark
- Truth or Error
- Love or Hate
- God or the Devil
This doesn’t mean nuance doesn’t exist or that there are no gray areas in life or theology; it simply means that in John’s context, there was a pressing need to draw stark contrast between those who were in the light and those who were in the darkness. He was dealing with false prophets, people who were denying essential truth about Jesus, but were trying to pass themselves off as genuine followers of Jesus. So, apparently, lines had to be drawn in the sand to differentiate between those who were true followers of Jesus and those who were not.
For John, it is “evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” For John, the primary line of demarkation was love for fellow Christians. For John, if someone believed in the name of Jesus Christ and loved his brother, they were obeying the commandments of Christ and were God’s children. If they did not believe and love, then they were in the darkness and were children of the devil.
I think it’s important to realize that there is a time for nuance and a time for stark contrast; followers of Jesus need to understand which is which. When we are having a conversation about the particulars of the Christian faith, we must understand we are likely having a nuanced conversation.
Don’t treat your brother, who disagrees with you on some matter of Christian faith or practice, as someone who is “in the darkness.” Just because someone disagrees with you about how things ought to happen in the Sunday assembly, for instance, does not mean that person is not abiding “in the teaching of Christ” or that he “does not have God.” But also, don’t be dismissive of conversations and debates that are trying to work out the particulars of Christian faith and practice. These conversations are not the sort of conversations John was having, but they are still important.
Changing the World Through Love
All of the themes, ideas, and concepts that John explores are important, but there is no theme more important than love. John depicts the people who truly love others as being possessors of light and life. When you love like Jesus loves, you show the world a new way of being human and this new humanity will live forever with Jesus. John writes, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
For John, love means taking care of one another. It means seeing someone in need and meeting their needs. He implores his readers, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” John believes if someone refuses to meet his brother’s needs when he has the ability to meet them, he hates his brother and should not consider himself part of the community of light. Following Jesus means making Jesus’ death our way of life, “He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Love is selfless. Love is sacrificial. Love serves.
Love is the new way to live. It’s actually the only way to live. Selfishness and hate are the way to die, but selfless love is the way to live now and forever. This is the way we participate with Jesus in bringing light to this world of darkness.
I love you and God loves you,