This commentary on 1–3 John examines the deeply theological, yet intensely practical, teaching on the foundational nature of truth and love in the context of the local church.
About the Author
David L. Allen (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is dean of the school of theology, professor of preaching and director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He served in pastoral ministry for twenty-one years and has been a teacher of preachers for more than twenty-five years. He resides in Irving, Texas, and has four grown children and five grandchildren.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Meet Jesus: God in Human Flesh!
TUCKED AWAY AT THE BACK of your Bible is a little letter called 1 John. John the Apostle, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, wrote it. At the time of writing, John was probably the only surviving member of the Twelve, and the only one who did not die a martyr's death. He wrote five books in the New Testament: the Gospel of John, which looks back to the past and presents the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; 1, 2, 3 John, which concern the present and teaches us how we should live now; and Revelation, which looks to the future and shows us how God will consummate history in the return of Jesus to this earth. Second and 3 John are very short letters, only one chapter each. We know John spent his later years in and around Ephesus. He wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor probably between A.D. 80 and 85. The church was now composed of second-and third-generation Christians. For some Christians this was a time of persecution. For others perhaps the thrill was gone and the flame of devotion to Christ was flickering. False teachers were infiltrating some of the churches, and some Christians were becoming lax in their Christian standards. Into these circumstances steps John with his letter.
John wrote with at least four purposes in mind. First, to combat false teachers who were beginning to infiltrate the churches. He exposes false doctrine and promotes spiritual truth. John was not afraid to engage the culture where first-century Christians lived. Second, John had an ethical purpose in writing. Specifically, he deals with attitudes toward sin and the necessity of love for other Christians. Third, John has a pastoral purpose in writing. His pastoral heart beats for the health of the church, for the strengthening of Christians in the faith, and for genuine fellowship among believers and with Christ. His frequent references to his readers as "children" and "little children" reflect the pastoral tone of the letter. As one who was at least probably an octogenarian himself, John could tenderly refer to all in the churches, young and old, as "children." Fourth, John had a personal purpose for writing: "so that our joy may be complete" (1:4).
Verses 1–4 of chapter 1 constitute the prologue to the letter. Its unusual structure can be confusing. What exactly is John trying to say here? The secret to understanding 1:1–4 lies somewhat behind the scenes, as we shall see. In these verses, "The greatest majesty is combined with the greatest simplicity." John begins, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life." Notice after verse 1 there is a dash in the ESV translation, followed by another dash at the end of verse 2. Verse 2 is a parenthetical statement: "the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us." Verse 3 reverts back to the thought at the end of verse 1: "that which we have seen and heard." This is followed by the main verb in the paragraph: "we proclaim also to you." This is the most important semantic information John is conveying in verses 1–3. Maybe it will be easier to understand what John is saying if you read it like this: "We proclaim to you that which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen, that which we have looked at, that which we have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life." Let's unpack these statements.
John's Declaration of Jesus the Word of Life (vv. 1–3a)
When John says "that which was from the beginning," the antecedent of "that" is "the word of life." Although John does not name Jesus until the latter part of verse 3, "the word of life" clearly refers to Jesus. One of John's favorite descriptors for Jesus is "Word." John began his Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Here is an "unbeginning beginning." When John says that Jesus was from the beginning, the question is, which beginning? Is this the beginning of Jesus' earthly life or perhaps the beginning of creation? Jesus' existence did not begin when he was born in Bethlehem. Likewise, Jesus was not a created being like angels before the creation of the heavens and the earth. Before history heard the starting gun, Jesus was there. John's "beginning" goes all the way back to eternity past. This is a statement about the eternal preexistence and deity of Jesus. R. G. Lee, the great pastor of yesteryear at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, often described it this way: "Jesus was the only man who had a heavenly Father, but no heavenly mother; who had an earthly mother but no earthly father; who was older than his mother and who was as old as his Father." Jesus is fully God and thus eternal.
It seems peculiar for John to tell us that he and the apostles heard, saw, touched, looked at, and handled Jesus. Why would John make such odd statements, employing so many verbs of perception? One answer to this question may have to do with a new philosophy beginning to gain ground at the end of the first century called Gnosticism. The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means "knowledge." It was a combination of pagan mysticism and Greek philosophy, predicated on two primary principles. First, Gnosticism taught that the way of salvation was through secret, superior knowledge granted to the initiated. Second, Gnostics considered all matter to be evil, but spirit to be good. Therefore the Gnostics taught that your physical body is evil, but your soul is good. Some of the false teachers John is combating in this letter had begun to infiltrate the church with incipient forms of this Gnostic teaching. The first error was a practical error, teaching Christians wrong ways to live. Imbibing this error, Christians went to one of two extremes. The first extreme we call asceticism, where you begin to punish your body. Why would anyone do this? To free the spirit. Remember, matter is evil, but spirit is good. The other extreme is licentiousness, a word that means to live any way you want. After all, if your body is evil and spirit is good, then it does not matter what you do with the body. Rules don't matter. You can get on drugs all you want, have all the sex outside of marriage you want. Why? Because the body is evil. It does not matter much what you do with your body. Do we have any Gnostics in our society today? Of course! Most of them just don't know that's what they are. Why is John harping on that? He is fighting the effects of incipient Gnosticism that had already begun to creep into the churches. First John was a general letter that was sent to all of the churches in Asia Minor to warn them of the practical dangers of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism also led to doctrinal error. Gnosticism generated two doctrinal errors concerning the person of Jesus Christ. The first one is called the docetic error. Docetic comes from a Greek word dokeo, which means "to seem" or "to appear." If the body is evil, then God, who is a Spirit being, cannot have any contact with the body. What would such a false belief do to the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus? You can't have an incarnation if docetic Gnosticism is true. You could not have God becoming man. Thus the Docetic Gnostics taught that Jesus did not have a literal human body. They denied the real humanity of Jesus. They said Jesus was from God, but they denied he was God in human flesh. They said his spirit was from God, but when Jesus was on the earth that wasn't really Jesus in human form. That was just what he appeared to be. He did not have a literal physical body like you and I do. So when people saw Jesus they were seeing something like a ghost or a phantom. If you were to walk over and touch Jesus, he would have no physical body to touch. You couldn't shake hands with Jesus because he had no literal hand to shake. When Jesus walked on soft soil, he left no footprints. Docetic Gnosticism denied the incarnation of Jesus. Now we understand why, first rattle out of the box, John speaks about seeing, hearing, and touching Jesus. What John is saying is something like this: "Those Docetic Gnostics who slipped into your church are teaching you something that is entirely false. They deny the incarnation of Jesus. What they deny, I experienced personally. I was there with Jesus during his earthly ministry. I saw him with my own eyes, heard him speak with my own ears, and touched him with my own hands. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that his body was real."
The second Gnostic error is called Cerinthian Gnosticism. Cerinthus was a contemporary of John and taught that because matter is evil, therefore the body is evil, but the spirit is good. Cerinthus taught that Jesus had a real human body (just the opposite of the Docetics), but he was just an ordinary man, and not God in human flesh. Joseph was his real father, Mary was his real mother, and he had a real human body. At Jesus' baptism the Holy Spirit came on him, and that's when the man Jesus became "the Christ." The Holy Spirit remained with Jesus for his three-year public ministry. However, when Jesus died on the cross, the Holy Spirit couldn't be associated with suffering and death according to Cerinthus, so the Spirit departed from him before he died. When the Spirit left him, that's why Jesus cried on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Thus Cerinthian Gnosticism taught that Jesus was born as an ordinary man, the Spirit came upon him for three years but then left him, and he died a mere man just like you and me. Imagine what such a teaching does to the doctrine of the atonement! If Jesus is a mere man just like you and me, how can he die for our sins? These two Gnostic errors lead to two serious doctrinal denials in the churches to which John is writing: the denial of the incarnation and the denial of the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.
Gnosticism is not dead; it is only disguised today in new garb. There has been a rising interest in the Gnostic writings in recent years, brought on in part by the popularity of novels and movies such as The DaVinci Code. Teachings that deny the incarnation and substitutionary atonement of Jesus are very much alive and well today.
Look again at verse 1. John says: "we have heard ... we have seen." Who does John intend to include in his use of "we"? He refers to himself and other eyewitnesses of Jesus' earthly ministry, which would include at least the other apostles. Notice also that the first two verbs are perfect tense verbs in Greek. The next two verbs in verse 1 ("looked upon" and "touched") are aorist tense verbs in Greek. Whether there is any semantic distinction intended by John here is difficult to say. The change may be purely stylistic. If John intends a distinction, it would be a change of focus from the continuing effect of what was heard and seen to a focus on the historical event in the verbs "which we looked upon and have touched." If this is the case, what John is saying is something like this: "What I heard from Jesus many years ago is still ringing in my ears as clear as a bell today as when I first heard it! What I saw many years ago when Jesus was on the earth is as clear and vivid to me today as it was then. We looked upon Jesus and touched him with our hands in specific times and specific incidents in the past." John is emphasizing the historical reality of what he is saying and maybe also the impact of it all that continues to inform his life. To add to all of this, John uses two different Greek words for "seeing" in verse 1. Though it is possible this is merely a stylistic difference, it seems more likely that John intends a distinction. The second verb, "we looked upon," may suggest seeing with careful attention and examination, implying something unusual in what is seen. Finally, John stresses that he and other eyewitnesses had "touched [Jesus] with our hands." This is John's way of stressing the reality of the physical body of Jesus and may be another jab at false proto-Gnostic teaching. It is also John's way of stressing his authority as an eyewitness of the life and death of Jesus. John would swear in court that Jesus was the genuine article: God in human flesh.
Think back to seven days after the first Easter Sunday. In an upper room at night Jesus' disciples had gathered. Suddenly Jesus appeared in their midst! What did Jesus do and say? He showed them his hands, his side, and his feet. He told them to touch him and see (Luke 24:39). Maybe John was thinking back to that night, now fifty or sixty years earlier, when he was there in that upper room and suddenly Jesus appeared. John saw him, hugged him, rejoiced with him, and talked to him. "We ... touched with our hands, concerning the word of life," the word of resurrection life! John calls Jesus "the Word" in John 1:1 and again in Revelation 19:13. John calls Jesus "the life" in John 11:25 in the context of Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus is the Word of Life because he gives life. He alone can save us from our sins and give us eternal life.
John stresses the historical reality of the incarnation of Jesus in verse 1. All other issues that he will speak to in the letter hinge on this crucial truth: God has become man in the person of Jesus Christ. This fact is the impregnable fortress from which John will defend the church against those false teachers who denied that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2).
In verse 2 John makes an extended parenthetical comment about "the word of life." This life "was made manifest." The word "made manifest" means "made to be visible; made to be seen and understood." How was this "word of life" made visible and understandable? When the phrase is taken to refer to Jesus, this occurred in history at the incarnation and through his earthly life. If we understand John to refer to the spiritual life possessed by Jesus and imparted by him to others, then the meaning is that this spiritual life became known, understandable, and available when Jesus appeared on the earth. God revealed his Son Jesus to the world.
As one of the apostles, John testifies to the reality and truth of Jesus and his gospel message of salvation and eternal life. He makes three statements in verse 2: "we have seen it [the word of life, Jesus], and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life." John does not use the name Jesus until verse 3 but describes Jesus with two further statements in verse 2: "[He] was with the Father and was made manifest to us." The little phrase "with the Father" is the same phrase John used in John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God." That little preposition "with" in the Greek text of John 1:1 conveys the idea of being face-to-face with someone. John is emphasizing two things by that phrase there and here in 1 John 1:2. First, he is equating Jesus with God in terms of deity. As Luther said, "Where the Son of God is, there Christ is; where Christ is, there the Father is." Second, he is not conflating them into one person but is emphasizing that though there is one divine nature, God and Jesus are distinct divine persons. To deny the distinct personhood of the Father and of the Son is to fall into the doctrinal error called modalism, which teaches there is one God who appears in three different ways: Father, Son, and Spirit. That is heresy because it denies the three distinct persons of the Trinity.
The final statement in verse 2 is a repetition of the beginning statement in the verse: "made manifest to us." John is emphasizing the fact of the incarnation, which is how Jesus and his salvation was made known so people could understand that eternal life is wrapped up in the person and work of Christ. John is simply saying in verse 2 that Jesus was made clearly known.
Every discourse taught by Jesus, every miracle performed by Jesus, every act of grace, every tender touch, every word of wisdom, formed a part of God's gracious manifestation of Christ to us in words and actions we could all understand. John's shorthand reporting in verses 1, 2 is his way of saying to his readers and us, "Behind every one of these tactile statements are three plus years of personal experience with the God of this universe who became man in the person of Jesus Christ. I am an eyewitness. I listened to him, gazed on him, and touched him to such an extent that I virtually memorized him! I testify to the reality of Jesus. Through him I have found eternal life. I have been preaching this life now for more than fifty years, and in this letter I am preaching this good news of Jesus to you also." Just as John himself heard (overheard?) Jesus praying to the Father in heaven, "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3)," John now reexpresses the truth of that prayer as Jesus' messenger boy to the church.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "1–3 John"
Copyright © 2013 David L. Allen.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word,
1 Meet Jesus: God in Human Flesh! (1:1–4),
2 When Sin Meets Forgiveness (1:5–10),
3 Jesus Our Advocate at Heaven's Court (2:1, 2),
4 The "Know So" Test (2:3–6),
5 All You Need Is Love (2:7–11),
6 Family Secrets (2:12–14),
7 Don't Decorate Your Cell (2:15–17),
8 Liar! Liar! (2:18–25),
9 The Unction Function (2:26, 27),
10 Ready or Not, Here I Come! (2:28, 29),
11 Who's Your Daddy? (3:1–10)1,
12 Love: The Church's Circulatory System (3:11–18),
13 How to Send Your Guilt Trip Packing (3:19–24),
14 Discerning Truth and Error (4:1–6),
15 Want to Play Catch? (4:7–11),
16 "Be My Valentine"—God (4:12–21),
17 Faith Is the Victory! (5:1–5),
18 A Tale of Three Witnesses (5:6–12),
19 The Haves and the Have-Nots (5:13–20),
20 Accept No Substitutes! (5:21),
21 Deniers and Deceivers (2 John),
22 Down with Diotrephes; Long Live Demetrius! (3 John),
What People are Saying About This
“A rich resource covering one of the New Testament’s most profound sections of Scripture, pastors and theologians of all persuasions will benefit from the thorough treatment Dr. Allen gives to these letters. This commentary, like John’s letters, is brimming with gospel hope.”
—J. D. Greear, Lead Pastor, The Summit Church, Durham, North Carolina; author, Gaining By Losing
“1-3 John is a welcomed addition to the Preaching the Word series. The 22 studies in this volume reveal careful research, theological insight, and exegetical integrity. Anyone preaching or teaching through the epistles of John will be greatly assisted by this volume. David Allen has rendered a valuable service to the church of the Lord Jesus that will bear fruit for years to come.”
—Daniel L. Akin, President, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
“In an excellent follow-up to his edited volume Text-Driven Preaching, David Allen crafts 22 sermons on 1, 2, and 3 John that exemplify the qualities that should characterize excellent preaching. These sermons are thoroughly Biblical, hermeneutically sound, Christ-centered, eminently practical, passionate, challenging, clear, and interesting. And these qualities shine through even when he navigates complex semantic issues, deals with heresies like Gnosticism and Docetism, and tackles pressing theological topics like the extent of the atonement. Here is a fine resource for anyone preaching through these three important New Testament letters!”
—Gregg R. Allison, Professor of Christian Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“Jesus spoke of the man who brought ‘out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ David L. Allen does exactly that with these 22 well-researched expositions. Drawing on preachers and scholars from all ages of the church, he opens up John’s epistles with admirable clarity and force. In every chapter, you will encounter the truth of the text, the heart of the preacher, and the direction of the Lord regarding how you should respond. Readable, illuminating, and convicting, this book deserves wide circulation among individuals and Bible study groups. Pastors will find here a refresher course in how to preach John's letters.”
—Robert W. Yarbrough, Professor of New Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary
“The sermons in this book (Allen describes them as ‘sermontaries—more than a sermon but less than a commentary’) are undergirded by solid scholarship, supported by references to great preachers of the past, and enhanced by Allen’s own wisdom and applications for today’s believers. A fine resource that I am very pleased to commend to all serious preachers of Scripture.”
—Colin G. Kruse, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Melbourne School of Theology