The Threefold Secret of Life

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


'We know that any one born of God does not sin, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. "Little children, keep yourselves from idols' (5:18-21).

We have seen that the wrong teaching that this epistle has been opposing was a form of what was known as Gnosticism (see page 12). Gnosticism is a word that comes from the Greek word for 'knowledge'. The Gnostics professed to be `the knowing ones', but when they boasted, 'I know him' (2:4) their knowledge was in the mind only and was not related to the life that they lived. True Christians are really `the knowing ones'. In verses 18, 19 and 20 John repeatedly says 'we know'; we 'know him that is true'. By God's goodness to us, not for anything that we deserve, we can say that we know these things and we know God Himself personally and truly.

a. We know the power of God over evil.

Verse 18 repeats, in the first place, what has been said in 3:9. There the way it was put was, 'No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God'. We saw that the meaning of that was that our new nature that comes from God is such that all sin is foreign to it. Sin and the child of God cannot live together. 'They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony' (John Stott). If we are children of God (3:1 and 5:1) and if we act accordingly to our nature as those born of God, then we will not sin.

Sadly, there is still in us the old nature, the selfish, self-centred, sinful nature. Therefore we need to know the power of God to enable our new nature to be victorious and for every temptation to live by our old nature to be conquered. The One who, above all others is the Son of God, `He who was born of God', as verse 18 expresses it, keeps us. If we rely on His power to keep us in our difficulties and temptations, then the evil one will not be able to touch us. This is like the assurance of 4:4, 'he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world'; or, as Jude verse 24 puts it, we know the one 'who is able to keep (us) from falling and present (us) without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing'. This is what Jesus in His own great prayer in John 17:15 prayed for His disciples that the Father would 'keep them from the evil one'.

b. We know that we are to live as God's people in a sinful world.

John's gospel (12:31, 14:30, and 16:11) speaks of the evil one as 'the ruler of this world'. He has power over the people in the world unless they turn back to God. In so many ways he has power over its organizations, its politics and its pleasures. So much is this the case that it can be said the 'the whole world is in the power of the evil one'. The original words used give the picture of the world in the grip, in the embrace of the evil one. But if we belong to Christ we have been taken out of the embrace of the evil one and we are held in the everlasting arms of God. We are of God. We are children of God, men and women of God, living by a higher life than the life of the world, a true life. But, as Philippians 2:15-16 puts it; we have a responsibility to be 'innocent and pure as God's perfect children, who live in a world of corrupt and sinful people. You must shine among them like stars lighting up the sky, as you offer them the message of life' (Today's English Version).

c. We know Him whom to know is life eternal

Finally, verse 20 says, in order, four things that 'we know':

1.We know the great fact that 'the Son of God has come'. With this greatest fact of all history the letter began and now it ends with it. Everything that has been said depends on this. Jesus is the Son of God who for our sakes became Man (remember 4:1-6).

2.It can be said that He 'has given us understanding'. In the world of science and education we can learn many things about our universe that God has made and about the life of the world. But it is by God's word to us in the Scriptures and above all through His Son Jesus Christ, the living Word, that we can have understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.

3.More than that, we can know God, the One who is true, and absolutely real, through His Son, who is 'the Way, the Truth and the Life' (John 14:6), and through the help of 'the Spirit of truth' (John 14:17, 15:26).

4.This knowledge of God is not just knowledge about God as one might express it in reciting a Christian Creed, 'God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth....' It is knowing God as we know a person - as 1:4 puts it, having 'fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ'. So what this verse in the end says that we know is, that 'we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ'. We discussed what that meant, to be 'in him' in the study of 4:13-16. This is the end, the goal, the purpose of God for us to know Him and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. This is the true God and eternal life (see John 17:3).

John reached the climax of the conclusion of his letter in writing about the things that we know, and, most important of all, the Person whom we know. We might have expected the letter to end at verse 20. He has one more thing to say: 'Little children' - children whom I know and love, who are also truly children of God - 'keep yourselves from idols'. This is so important because we all can easily put something else or someone else first in our lives. Or we may trust in a charm or amulet or our material possessions for protection rather than in God alone. John says to us, 'You who know God, you who have come to know the way of life, of freedom, of love, of peace, of truth; do not turn from Him to anything that is not God. Put no other person, no other thing, however precious, in His place. Serve Him alone. Rely on Him alone. Love Him with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.' 'Keep yourselves from idols.'


The dearest idol I have known,

Whate'er that idol be,

Help me to tear it from Thy throne,

And worship only Thee.

For further thought and study.

1. Read carefully the prayer for our Lord Jesus Christ in John chapter 17 and see in what ways He asks for things that are emphasized in, these verses and in other parts of this epistle.

2. What does verse 19 suggest is the responsibility of the Christian in the world and the mission of the Christian to' the world?