The Global Message of 1–3 John
The letters of John address the global church head-on with strong words that confront half-hearted Christian living and confused thinking about Christ. These letters tell us that everyone is walking in either light or darkness, love or hatred, truth or falsehood. John says that either we confess Jesus as the Son of God who has come in the flesh, or we lend our support to the antichrist, who denies this. There is no middle ground. Above all, these epistles issue a resounding call to believers to walk in love, as they have been loved.
Redemptive History and 1–3 John
The opening words of 1 John place this letter in the flow of redemptive history: “That which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1). As in the first verse of his Gospel account (John 1:1), John is likely drawing here on Genesis 1:1, which tells us that, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” John’s point in opening his first epistle this way is to teach that Jesus Christ has existed eternally. He did not come into being at the incarnation.
At the same time, something decisively new did happen at the incarnation—“the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:2). The second person of the Trinity came into the history of this world as a man. John therefore emphasizes in his first verse not only that Jesus was preexistent but also that he entered into world history as a real human being. God did not reveal his salvation to us through visions or dreams or subjective feelings, but through a real man in real history—that “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands” (1:1). Indeed, confessing the humanity of Jesus is seen as one of the key marks of authentic faith throughout John’s letters (1 John 4:1–3; 2 John 7).
Universal Themes in 1–3 John
John’s letters bring together powerfully the three aspects of authentic Christian living, whatever its cultural expression: true doctrine (mind), selfless love (heart), and obedient action (will).
Mind. John says clearly that certain key truths must be confessed by those who claim to be true believers. If these truths are denied, it is proof that such a person does not know and love God. John therefore speaks not only broadly of the truth and of the importance of acknowledging the truth (1 John 2:21; 2 John 1–2, 9; 3 John 3–4) but also of specific truths that must be embraced. True Christians believe, for example, that they are sinners (1 John 1:8, 10), that Jesus is the Christ (2:22; 5:1), and that Jesus came in the flesh (4:1–3; 2 John 7).
Heart. Authentic Christianity is not only a matter of what we believe but also of how we love. John speaks extensively in his letters of the central significance of love. True Christians love God (1 John 4:20; 5:2, 10) and love other believers (2:10; 3:11, 14, 18; 4:7). Indeed, the two must go together, for “whoever loves God must also love his brother” (4:21). And both kinds of human love—the vertical and the horizontal, as we may describe them—are rooted in an even greater love: God’s love for us (3:16; 4:7, 19).
Will. Finally, vibrant Christian living is not only a matter of what we believe and what we love but also of what we do. Indeed, authentic love must express itself outwardly. “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). John is insistent that to confess orthodox doctrine with the lips while neglecting to obey God’s commands is proof that one has not been born of God (2:3–4; 3:22–24; 5:2–3; 2 John 6).
The Global Message of 1–3 John for Today
John’s three letters hold deep significance for global Christianity. Two themes in John’s letters are particularly relevant—Christ, the central person of Christianity; and love, the central action of Christianity.
Christ among the world religions. In some parts of the world, especially in the West, pluralism reigns. Sincerity seems to count more than truth. In such contexts, our belief that Jesus Christ is the one true way of salvation must not be compromised. John makes clear that unyielding loyalty to the singular supremacy of Christ as the Son of God is nonnegotiable for the Christian church (1 John 2:22–23; 4:1–3; 5:1, 10, 13).
In other parts of the world, people do not have trouble believing that only one religion is the true religion, but they adhere to some worldview other than Christianity. Here, too, the biblical Christ must be lifted up and shown to be the Son of God who came into the world in flesh and blood to provide atonement for sins. In him is life itself (1 John 5:11–12). Jesus is not one great prophet among many, as Islam teaches. He is not merely a uniquely enlightened spiritual teacher, as Buddhism says. Jesus is not a wise sage or a personal form of the gods Brahman or Vishnu, as different forms of Hinduism might teach. Only in Christ is restoration and life found. “Whoever has the Son has life” (5:12).
Love above all else. The primacy of love is upheld throughout the New Testament. Yet nowhere is love described so clearly as central to Christian living as in John’s letters. Twenty percent of the New Testament references to “love” are found in 1–3 John. According to John, love is not simply a trait of Christian living; it is definitive of Christian living. “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).
Such love is expressed in practical deeds of kindness and generosity toward fellow believers. John emphasizes that because of what Christ has done for us, we are compelled gladly to lay down our lives for others (1 John 3:16–18). We are to love not “in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (3:18).
Massive needs present themselves around the world. For example, due to poor stewardship of resources, political corruption, and other factors, water and food are often not available for those who need it most, such as young children. Christ’s disciples are called to address such needs, especially as they arise among fellow Christians. The same can be said for many other global concerns—systemic injustice, debilitating disease, job loss, poverty, various assaults on the dignity of human life, modern slavery, and so on. As the global church lifts its eyes to consider the needs confronting fellow believers around the world, neglect of such need, says John, is proof that God’s love does not abide in us (1 John 3:17).