The writings of John the Apostle (The Gospel of John, 1,2,3 John and Revelation) are, on the one hand, simple in vocabulary, but on the other hand, they are complex and deep theologically, and profound and transformative spiritually. Because of this it is easy to miss their powerful meaning. The first letter of John is especially this way. It has a cadence to it as you read and a certain pious charm that can touch the heart. But it is more. In it we find deep waters of spiritual truth. Don’t go there if you don’t want to be changed. Because of its subtleties it may take a few readings before you begin to find your way beneath the surface. But what you find there is worth many readings. For the patient reader, each reading yields greater understanding and perception.
Many have noted the difficulty in finding a clear structure to 1 John. This is why the outlines of the book look so different. John has a tendency in all his writings to begin with one theme, move on to another, and then circle back around to the first. This idiosyncrasy, I think, is purposeful. By structuring his writings in this way, John is providing us with layers of truth. He is taking us way beneath the surface. But the basic flow of John’s message is this: (1) A prologue on the Word of Life (1:1-4), (2) An introduction (1:5-10), (3) The message of assurance of salvation (2:1-5:21).
John’s purpose in the book is to provide his readers with a clear path to the assurance of their salvation. He uses his unique style and other literary devices to do this. So, the outline of the book and the exposition of it will be somewhat different from other books. But I believe we will see things in 1 John that will help us better see God’s plan and even experience his presence.
The Word of Life (1:1-4)
The first four verses of the letter of 1 John are often called the prologue. They are very different from the beginning of most of the letters in the New Testament, but similar to the prologue of John’s gospel. The letter of 1 John is more like a sermon than a letter. In fact, it is just that to the church(s) he sends it to.
John begins his message by reminding his readers that he was an eyewitness to the most amazing events in all human history. These amazing events were actually a person, the Word of Life, Jesus Christ. John’s stated purpose in the prologue is that his readers may, like John, have fellowship with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.
Walking in the Light (1:5-10)
John’s purpose in the book is to give his readers an assurance of salvation. But he doesn’t do that immediately after the prologue. He gives a short introduction to the rest of the book which will be an assurance of salvation. To introduce his subject John uses the theme of light and darkness. This theme refers to the polar opposites of truth and lies, and righteousness and sin. This lays the groundwork for the development of his message on assurance.
In the introduction John uses five conditional statements using the word “if.” We find every verse in 1:6-10 beginning with the word. Each conditional statement further reveals the sharp contrast between light and darkness. Again, the idea of fellowship is key here. People are far from God. They are in darkness and can have no fellowship with him while in the darkness. It is only as they enter the light by the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, that they have fellowship with God.
Assurance of Salvation (2:1-5:21)
In the third and final section of the book of 1 John we get into the meat of the book and the purpose for which it was written. As we’ve stated, John wrote the book to provide an assurance of salvation to his readers. He does this by giving them four ways they can know they are truly saved. These four ways are: (1) practicing righteousness, (2) loving the brotherhood, (3) having true faith in Jesus Christ, and (4) having the Holy Spirit. John weaves these four ways of assurance throughout the rest of the book in three parts of this final section (2:1-27; 2:28-4:6; 4:7-5:21).
John also uses other ways to communicate his message of assurance of salvation. First, John uses the phrase, “by this” some eleven times (2:3, 5; 3:10, 16, 19, 24; 4:2, 6, 13, 17; 5:2) to introduce ways we can know we are true believers in Jesus Christ. Often the word “know” is used in connection with this phrase to show that this is a sure way we can have knowledge of our standing with God.
John also used terms of endearment like, little children, children or beloved (2:1, 7, 12, 13, 18, 28; 3:7, 21; 4:1, 4, 7; 5:21) to connect with his readers and assure them of their love relationship with God as his dearly loved children.
The first of the three subsections where John is emphasizing the four ways of assurance of salvation is 2:1-27. He begins with a focus on practicing righteousness as a way to have assurance in 2:1-6. Here John acknowledges that we are all sinners, but that obedience to Christ is a mark of a true believer. While we fail occasionally, we desire to obey and by the Spirit of God our obedience is real. Next, in 2:7-14 the focus is on loving the brotherhood. Light and darkness are contrasted. Loving one’s brother is walking in light, while hating one’s brother is walking in darkness. At the end of this passage (2:12-14) John refers to his readers as children, fathers and young men as a way of encouraging them. The short passage of 2:15-17 John returns to the idea of practicing righteousness with an admonishment to not love the world. One cannot love the world and the Father at the same time. What we love will show itself in our lives and reveal our relationship with God. And finally, in 2:18-27 John emphasizes having true faith in Jesus and having the Holy Spirit as two ways to have assurance. He does this by warning them of false teachers he calls antichrists. These false teachers deny the Lord and therefore do not have true faith in him. John assures his readers that they have been anointed by the Holy One and have all knowledge. This is a reference to the Holy Spirit. They have the Holy Spirit living in them to protect them from the false teachers.
The second passage where the four ways of having assurance is 2:28-4:6. He begins again with a focus on practicing righteousness (2:28-3:10) as a way of knowing we are children of God. In this passage John emphasizes the family relationship of God as Father and believers as his children. Those born of God are his children practice righteousness as their heavenly Father is righteous. Next, in 3:11-24 we find John focusing on loving one another as the way to know we are God’s children. This love of the brothers and sisters is an active love that has a tangible expression in daily life. At the end of this passage we find John bringing all four ways of assurance into focus (3:21-24). Finally, in 4:1-6 John returns to true faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit as ways of having assurance of salvation. The believer is to test the spirits, which refers to those who claim to speak the word of God by the Holy Spirit. Those who do speak from the Holy Spirit will confess that Jesus has come in the flesh. John was combating a false teaching in his day that claimed Jesus only seemed to come in the flesh. False teachers will deny something true about Jesus Christ and his word. The true believer who has the Spirit will be led into the truth by the Spirit.
The final passage of this large section of the book is 4:7-5:21. Here again John returns to all four ways of assurance. He begins with love for the brotherhood in 4:7-21. In this passage John returns to the foundation of all the ways of assurance. He first mentioned it in 2:2 and now again in 4:10. It is that God’s love comes to us through the death of Jesus for our sins. The Father sent his Son, Jesus, to be a propitiation for our sins. This means that the death of Jesus satisfies God’s righteous anger for our sins. It is the Father’s love that sends the Son and is therefore just and the justifier of believers (Romans 3:23-26). Then, in 5:1-5 we see true faith in Jesus Christ as a way of assurance. Those with true faith in Jesus obey God’s commandments. But in 5:6-12 John combines The Holy Spirit and faith as evidence of a person’s salvation. In the final passage of this section and the book (5:13-21) John returns to true faith in Christ and practicing righteousness as ways to know one is born of God. In the last three verses of the book (5:19-21) John concludes his letter with the fact that we can know that we are saved despite the constant powerful activity of the devil. Our God is more powerful than he.
In all the book John gives his readers ample insight into full assurance of salvation and also ways to discern the lack of true faith. Few things in all of life can be more important than knowing for sure that one is truly saved and going to heaven. Readers of this short biblical book can find the assurance they need and help other believers find assurance. The sweet reality of fellowship with God is all the sweeter when one has the peace of their eternal destiny.