The Threefold Secret of Life

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


'In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgement, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, 'I love God', and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also' (4:17-21).

This letter has said a great deal about love and the effect of love in human lives. There is still more to be said. It has been emphasized that love begins with God and not with us. The world saw love supremely in Jesus Christ, when God sent His Son to be the Saviour of the world (verse 14)-and when Jesus loved us to the point of giving Himself to die for us. John says that love is 'perfected' (he has spoken of this in 2:5 and 4:12), that is, love reaches its goal and purpose, when it works in our lives and is seen there. Then two things will happen.

a. Love will remove fear.

There are two different kinds of fear. There is the fear that is reverence before God, when we realize His greatness and power and holiness and at the same time realize our smallness and weakness and sinfulness. That kind of 'fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' (Psalm 111:10 and Proverbs 9:10). We want always to have that fear in our lives. There is even a right place for that kind of fear and reverence for other people. It is the opposite of pride and lack of feeling for them. The second kind of fear is when we are frightened of what may happen to us. We may have to face great difficulties in this life, suffering, trial, and even, persecution. It may be natural to fear such things, but we do not need to be overcome by such fear, because God has promised to be with us always. If His love floods our hearts we know that the love of God will never let us go. One day 'the day of judgment' of which verse 17 speaks - we will have to stand before God and give account to Him.

The great point of this verse, however, is that we do not need to fear that judgment day if we have received the love of God and the pardon that His love offers to all. If we have that love, it will cast out all fear. Fear has to do with punishment and there is no punishment where there is pardon and forgiveness. We can have confidence (verse 17 and look back to 2:28) because we have been accepted as God's children. Alongside the words of this epistle we can put the great words of the apostle Paul in Romans 8:14-17: 'For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship.' When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.' Then John goes on with beautiful words that come at the end of verse 17 of this study, 'as he is so we are in this world'. As He is - God's Son, accepted by the Father, loved by Him -so are we, accepted in Him and because of what he has done for us, God's children (see John 17:20-23). Love drives away all our fears.

b. Love will remove hatred.

The last three verses of the chapter come back to what has been said before about love. Verse 19 says, 'We love, because He first loved us'. We love. Who do we love? Some people say with great assurance, 'I love God', 'I belong to Him', 'I love the Lord Jesus'. Here is the searching test and challenge: 'If any one says, 'I love God', and hates his brother, he is a liar.' If love, God's love, really does flood our hearts then it must express itself in the two ways: love for God and love for other people. Jesus, in that very powerful parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), made it clear that what we do in love for others, He takes as done for Him; and what we fail to do for others, we fail to do for Him. He will be able to say to those in whom His love has been at work, 'I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me'; and where there has been no such love for others, He takes it that there was no love for Him; 'as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me'.

Two reasons are given here why this love for others must be shown in the lives of those who profess to be God's people. First, it is God's command (verse 21). Alongside the command to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) there is the command to love our neighbour (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus put the two together as the great commandments that sum up all the law (Mark 12:28-33). Secondly, John says that the one kind of love that can be seen tests the reality of the other that cannot be seen. Just as if we have two eyes both will see, if we have two ears both will hear, if we have two nostrils both will bring air to our lungs, so, if the love of God is in us, it will be channeled out in love for God and in love for our fellows. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot love God if we have hatred for others - whether the hatred of resentment, or of bitterness or of selfish unconcern.


Lord, may Your love do its perfect work in us -more and more day by day - taking away fear and giving us confidence, taking away all hatred and hurtful criticism and seeking all that is good for our fellows, that in us the love of Christ may be seen, to the glory of His name. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. What are the different things that this letter tells us make professing Christian people 'liars'? Together with verse 20 see 2:4 and 22. Note also what is said about making God a 'liar' in 1:10 and 5:10.

2. We have commented above on the words of verse 17, as he is so are we in this world'. What can we understand from these words also of the way in which we are intended to be Christ's representatives in the world? Think of this in the light of John 20:21 and 2 Corinthians 3:2-3.