The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©

1, 2 AND 3 JOHN

These short letters that we find near to the end of our Bible are remarkable in many ways, especially in that they have deep truth in very simple language. John Wesley said that 1 John has 'the strongest sense in the plainest language.' In a number of ways, as we will see in our study, the three letters are very similar. Yet there are important differences. 1 John begins, not with any greetings like a normal letter of those times, nor with the names of the people to whom it was sent, nor with the name of the writer who sent it. Yet it was sent to definite people, facing particular problems, as we will see. They were probably Christians in a number of different centres in a particular area, probably that of the Roman province of Asia, which is more or less the area of modern Turkey.

2 John is written more as a letter than 1 John is. It begins with greetings, with the writer's description of himself as `the elder' and of his readers as 'the elect lady and her children'. We will see that there are reasons for thinking that the 'elect lady' was not a particular person but a church congregation spoken of in this way, most likely one of those congregations to which 1 John was sent. Finally, 3 John is written by the same person, 'the elder', to a particular man, Gaius, who may have been in that church addressed in 2 John, or in a church nearby.

Not only are these three letters alike in a number of ways, they are also similar to John's Gospel. This has led people from the 2nd Century down to modern times to say that the apostle John was responsible for all four writings, the Gospel and the three letters. Many people still find no good reason to question that. Others have raised questions, for a number of reasons. For those who wish to think about these a brief note on the authorship and dating of the letters is given in the Appendix at the end of this book. Those who want to study the matter seriously must turn to fuller commentaries than this. It is important to note, however, that as in the case of the Gospel that we call John's, so with this letter, the writer wants to tell us little or nothing about himself. He wants to tell us a great deal about his Lord and about the way of believing in Him and following Him.

It is helpful for us to know something about the situation in the church or churches for whom the letters were written. We read in John 20:31 the particular reason for the writing of the Gospel. John says about the 'signs' that Jesus did and that he recorded: 'these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name'. In other words, the Gospel was written that people might believe in Christ and find life in Him. When we ask about the purpose of 1 John, we find that John says, 'I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life' (5:13). In other words the Epistle was written that true Christians might know that they had life in Christ and so could be confident in Him. This was necessary because there were many people who were making claims to be Christians, to know God and to have fellowship with Him, when they had no right to make such claims. We read often in the letter statements that begin 'If we say...', 'if we say...' (see 1:6, 8, 10), 'he who says...', 'he who says...', (see 2:4, 6, 9), 'if any one says' (4:20). These refer to claims that were being made by those who had no right to make them.

In order that true Christians may know that they are God's people and that those who make such a claim falsely may see that they are wrong, John gives three tests of the reality of a person's Christianity. It is as if he says to people: `You claim to be Christians, to know God, to be His children and to walk in the light of His truth. How then do you answer these important questions?

John says that these three - obedience, love and right belief - are the most important tests whether a person has life in Christ. These are the three secrets of Christian living.

Nearly all this letter, 1 John, between a short introduction and a conclusion, is a series of applications of the tests of obedience, love and right belief. At first they are considered one by one. Then they are linked together. In the earlier part of the letter they are presented along with the theme of light - we walk in the light when we seek to obey God, love others and truly believe in Jesus Christ. Then they are joined to the theme of life - if we have life in Jesus Christ it will be shown by our acting in obedience to God, by our love for others and by our belief in Jesus Christ.

More will be said about 2 John and 3 John when we come to study those letters later. The general situation is similar for all three letters. In 2 John the principles of obedience to God, love for others and true faith in Jesus Christ are given their special application to 'the elect lady and her children.' In 3 John they are applied to the lives of particular people, Gains, Diotrephes and Demetrius, three very different characters as we see from what is said about them. There are many different ways of studying these letters. We can take them section by section, as this little book tries to do. It is often good, however, to read a letter as a whole and get the force of its whole message at one time. It is also helpful (as suggested below) to take the great subjects or themes of these letters - such as love, light, truth - and to see what the three letters say about each in turn. In whatever way we study, if we do so with an open mind, we will see what a wonderful balance of truth these letters bring to us - as they emphasize for us right believing and right action, doing the will of God and serving our fellows in love and concern.


Lord God Almighty, in Your wisdom and goodness You have spoken to us and given us Your word in the Scriptures. Help us by Your Spirit to understand as we read; then in Your strength may we apply to our lives Your truth and so live in obedience to You, in love for those around us and in sincere and humble faith in Jesus Christ Your Son our Saviour. AMEN.

For further thought and study:

As you have time, take individually any of the following subjects and key words of these letters. Read all three letters, and note what they say about

These notes here and in most of the later studies, deal with details of background or of difficulties in the passages being studied. Some readers may like to leave the Notes out of their reading and concentrate on the other parts.

Notes. The false teaching opposed in 1 John.

a. Gnosticism. This is the name given to a religious movement that was important in New Testament days and after. It takes its name from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, because the people whom we call Gnostics made a great claim to have spiritual knowledge. Others might have faith, but they said that they had knowledge, the knowledge of God. Their idea of knowledge, however was very different from what is spoken of in the Bible as the knowledge of God, as we will see in the study of these Epistles. In both Old and New Testaments the knowledge of God is not just something in the mind, but it means fellowship with God and doing the will of God. In the Bible knowing God means obeying Him and showing love for others. John said that there were those who said they knew God but they did not really know Him. They may have had knowledge in their minds, but they showed no desire to do God's will nor did they feel that loving others was important for them.

b. Docetism. The Greeks and many eastern peoples in those days thought of spirit as good and everything material as evil, even the human body. People who thought like this said, therefore, that the Son of God could not really have become man and have had a human body. It must only have seemed that he had a body. From the Greek word for 'seem' we have the name for this way of thinking, Docetism. The particular kind of Gnostics against whom 1 John is written were Docetists. Because of this, the letter places a great emphasis on the reality of the fact that the Son of God came and lived among us (1:1-4). Along with the necessary emphasis on obeying God and loving others (for the reasons we have seen above), there had to be also the emphasis on believing the right things about Jesus, that He is the Christ, the Son of God, who truly became Man in order to be our Saviour (4:1--6).

c. Cerinthus. Cerinthus was one of the Gnostics who also held to the view that we have spoken of as Docetism. His teaching was that Jesus was simply a human person and, at the time of His baptism by John, the Christ (a spiritual power) came on Him and then left Him before He died on the cross. Thus, Cerinthus said, the Christ, the Son of God, was not really born as man nor did He die on the cross. (We may compare the way that Muslim people say that Jesus was not actually crucified.) We will see that when we understand this teaching of Cerinthus we can understand what is meant by the words of 5:6 where it is said that Jesus Christ came 'not with the water only, but with the water and the blood'.

If we keep these three in mind - Gnosticism, Docetism and Cerinthus - it will help us to understand a number of things in these Epistles and why there had to be a great emphasis on believing the right things about Jesus Christ, as well as on living in obedience to God and in love for others. This brings us back again to the three tests of the reality of the knowledge of God which we have considered in our introduction.