The First Book of John is one of the most beautiful letters in the New Testament. Writing toward the end of the first century, St John the Theologian, “beloved disciple” of Christ and author of the Gospel of John, addresses faithful Christians on the importance of confession and repentance of sins, God’s love for His children, and His commandments for us to truly love one another as “children of God”.
St. John repeatedly emphasizes that we are to show our love for one another not “in word or in tongue, but in deed”, and warns against the tragedy and darkness of hatred, which is murder of the heart. First John also contains a powerful testimony of the Holy Trinity, as well as the Church’s holy mysteries of baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist, through which Christ and His Spirit dwell in us. The apostle also repeatedly identifies Christ as God and God as love.
1) God is light and calls us to walk in this light, which is true communion “with one another” and the path to Christ’s all-cleansing love.
“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” – 1 John 1:5-7
2) God calls us to confession, forgiving and cleansing repentant sinners of all “unrighteousness”. Christ does not abide in those who deny their sins.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us.”—1 John 1:8-10
3) The love of God abides in the upright and the faithful. St. John here refers to Christ directly as God, urging the righteous “to walk just as He walked”.
“But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.”—1 John 2:5-6
4) Hatred of one’s brother darkens the soul and obscures God’s light, blinding the hateful person and leading him astray.
“He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”—1 John 2:9-11
5) God forgives the pious their sins, and makes Himself known to those who become like unto “little children”, delighting in simplicity and truth. St. John here describes three stages in Christian life: the “little children” are the newly illumined converts in the faith, the “fathers” are those mature and wise with many years in the faith, and the “young men” are those whose zeal for the faith helps them “overcome the wicked one”. The apostle again describes Christ as God, “Him who is from the beginning”, begotten before created space or time.
“I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.”—1 John 2:12-14
6) God promises His faithful servants eternal life.
“Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that He has promised us—eternal life.”—1 John 2:24-25
7) We are beloved “children of God”. Our Heavenly Father loves us and beckons us to become “like Him” purifying and sanctifying our bodies, spirits and souls in faith. St. John testifies of the early Church’s belief in deification or theosis. As he reiterates once again that we are “children of God”, he reminds us that “it has not yet been revealed what we shall be” and that when the faithful shall someday see God “as He is”, “we shall be like Him”.
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God. Therefore the world does not know us, because it does not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.”—1 John 3:1-3
8) In ringing words St. John condemns those who do not love their fellow men as abiding “in death”, decrying anyone filled with hate as “a murderer” in whom the promise of eternal life in Christ is absent.
“He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”—1 John 3:14-15
9) Just as Christ “laid down His life for us”, we ought to be willing to sacrifice all for our brothers and sisters. St. John exhorts us to live in a spirit of charity toward all and embrace and assist those in need. The love of God is clearly absent from any selfish and heartless men.
“By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?—1 John 3:16-17
10) St. John exhorts us to show our love not “in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth”, urging us to undertake loving actions which show our uprightness of heart in “the truth” of the Christian faith. He reminds us that God “knows all things”, our thoughts, actions, and inactions.
“My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.”—1 John 3:18-21
11) St. John reiterates Christ’s commandment for us to love one another just as He loves us, “for love is of God”. He who loves is “born of God and knows God”, another reference to Christians as children of God. Those who do not love cannot possibly come to know Him, for “God is love”. The apostle reminds us of the core message at the heart of the Gospel—that God “sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” The notion that God is loving, that He is love, is entirely unique to Christianity.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this, the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”—1 John 4:7-11
12) God’s love abides in those who love the Father, His Son, and each other. St. John promises us that “if we love one another, God abides in us” and His Spirit dwells in us. The apostle makes a beautiful declaration of his faith in the “Savior of the world”, and reiterates that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.” Thus, love of our fellow men and faith in Christ the Savior are twin pillars of the Christian life and witness. St. John again testifies that “God is love”.
“No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” –1 John 4:12-16
13) St. John reiterates that someone capable of feeling hate cannot possibly love God, and if he claims to love God while he “hates his brother”, he is condemned as “a liar”. Those who love God must necessarily love their brethren.
“If someone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have been given from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.”—1 John 4:20-21
14) Those who believe in Christ are “born of God” and so they must love their brothers and sisters as fellow “children of God”. St. John assumes that love for God and love for God’s creation are coterminous and self-evident. When we love God, we naturally strive to “keep His commandments”. If we focus on our love for Him, these commandments will not be “burdensome” to us, and we will be able to persevere and “overcome the world” of temptation to sin.
“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world.”—1 John 5:1-4
15) When he writes of Christ as “He who came by water and blood. . . not only by water, but by water and blood”, St. John beautifully references Christ’s baptism by the Forerunner St. John the Baptist, His institution of the Eucharist, and His voluntary death on the Cross. Water represents the Savior’s baptism in the River Jordan, blood represents the wine at the Passover Seder which He transformed into His own blood, and the “water and blood” together refer to that which poured from His side when the centurion stabbed Him with his spear.
The apostle then evokes the Holy Trinity when he writes of the “three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” In Greek, the words used here reflect the very essence or nature of the Godhead’s oneness. τρεῖς ἕν εἰσιν, literally “the three [within] one”: “the three” are not joined in a composite union of three distinctly separated Persons, but from the words used, they are essentially united as one God.
The contrast between St. John’s description of the Trinity and his description of the “three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood” is evident because whereas in describing the Trinity he writes “these three are one”, with the witnesses of Christ “on earth”, he writes “these three agree as one”, and are thus not essentially one. In Greek this word arrangement appears as τρεῖς εἰς τὸ ἕν εἰσιν, very much distinct from the τρεῖς ἕν εἰσιν used to describe the Trinity. The earthly witnesses of “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” represent three mysteries of Christ’s Church: chrismation, baptism, and the Eucharist, respectively.
“This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree as one.”—1 John 5:6-8
16) God has granted us eternal life in, through and by His Son Jesus Christ. Our true benediction and fulfillment as humans is inseparably tied to Christ, for without Him we do “not have life”. St. John exhorts us to believe in the Savior, “that you may know that you have eternal life” and he urges us to persevere in faithfulness and “continue to believe in the name of the Son of God”.
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life; and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”—1 John 5:11-13
17) We can have an unshakeable confidence in God that “whatever we ask”, “He hears us” and answers our prayers in faithfulness.
“Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”—1 John 5:14-15
18) In his closing, St. John reaffirms that “we are of God”, His beloved children living in a fallen world “under the sway of the wicked one”. We have Christ’s promise that He will remain with us, for “the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true”. We have the promise of eternal life in Christ our “true God”. Let us cleave to Him, and turn from the false gods of this world and the many “idols” it puts before us to distract us from our Lord.
“We know that we are of God, and the whole world lives under the sway of the wicked one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”—1 John 5:19-21
The above passages from Holy Scripture are taken from the New Testament text of The Orthodox Study Bible published in 2008 by the St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. The text used is the New King James Version © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.