The Threefold Secret of Life

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


1 John 2:3-27


'And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He who says "I know him" but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him; he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked' (2:3-6).

The part of the letter we have read up to this point has been like an introduction. It has stated the things that stand at the very centre of the Christian faith. The Son of God came into our world and became man. People came to know Him, see Him, hear Him, touch Him. He came that we might have eternal life. Since then people have made claims to belong to Christ, to have fellowship with God, to walk in the light, to have no sin in their lives. Sometimes the claims they have made have been false. For there is really only one way to find life in Christ - to confess that we are sinful, and to realize that Jesus came and died on the cross to deal with our sins and to bring us back to the Father. People today still make great claims as they did when this letter was written claiming to belong to Christ and to live in the light. What are the tests of the truth of such claims? What are the marks of a real Christian? This letter gives three such tests, as we have said, three marks of the Christian. They are stated in chapter two, repeated in chapters three and four and then in chapter five it is shown how closely the three belong together. The first of the three tests is the test of obedience. It is expressed in these verses in three ways.

a. Obeying God's commandments.

The New English Bible translates verse three: 'Here is the test by which we can make sure that we know him; do we keep his commands?' These are very simple words, but they say a great deal. A person may say, 'Yes, I live a decent life. I keep God's commandments.' That is like the man who met Jesus with the question, 'What must I do to inherit eternal life? and when Jesus talked to him about God's commandments he said, 'All these I have observed from my youth'. Then by his response to the words of Jesus he showed that he was not willing in his life to put God first, or to love his neighbour as himself (see Mark 10:17-22). Another may say, 'I am a religious person. I have been baptised. I go to church'. But the Bible makes clear that religious practices without obedience to God are of no use (see 1 Samuel 15:22, Hosea 6:6, Micah 6:6-8). Another person may say, 'Obey God's commandments? I could never do that. I have failed so often.' Yes, we must all say that. But verses 1 and 2 of this chapter tell us that when we sin we have the way of forgiveness if we come to God through Jesus Christ.

What these verses are saying to us is that the proof of the reality of our Christianity and of our knowing God is the direction in which our lives are moving. If we truly have come to God through Jesus Christ and know him for ourselves, then it must have an effect on our lives. We can never be the same as we were ere before. We may often fail, but we must show that we want to obey Him and serve Him and keep His commandments. If we do not, then we are wrong to profess to be Christ's. The person who can as easily disobey God's commandments as obey them and yet claims to be Christ's is a liar, and the truth is not in him'. So what is the most practical and searching test whether or not we are true Christians? It is not the faith we profess or the spiritual experience of which we boast, but the life we are living. Are we living a life in which we seek to obey God first of all, or not?

b. Keeping His Word.

These verses speak of obeying God but also of keeping His word. What is the difference between keeping and obeying? Not much. 'Keeping' speaks of the desire to hold and be true to what someone has said to us. Sometimes a dying man may give some special instruction to a son or daughter as to what he wants done. Out of love for the father that son or daughter will want to keep that instruction in mind and do what was asked. In keeping it they express their love. Think of some of the things that our Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples, and says to us to whom His, word comes today. 'Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness' (Matthew 6:33). 'Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all' (Mark 10:43-44). 'Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation' (Mark 14:38). Then there were His very last words to His disciples: 'You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth' (Acts 1:8). These are the words of Jesus to us. If we love Him and want the love of God to work perfectly in us, then we will have these words of His in our hearts, and we will want to obey them in our lives. Yes, we may often fail, but we will be doing what this test requires, if we always come back and want to keep His word.

c. Walking as He walked.

How wonderful it is that we not only have God's commands given to us to show us how we should live, but that we have had lived out in this world the perfect life of His Son Jesus Christ. We are called to keep His words, but also to walk in the way that Jesus walked. We think of His life, as John 1:14 describes it, 'full of grace and truth'. We see His continual care for those in need, His thought for others, and the way He helped them. We see how He stood perfectly for the truth, even though the cost was suffering and death. As He walked on this earth, we are called to walk. As He lived, so we are to live. It is impossible, we may say; we can never reach His standard. Yes, we try, and we have to come back to ask Him to forgive us for our failures. But we go on, and we must always have His standard before us. Which direction are our lives moving? Are they moving more and more in the direction that Christ's life moved? Can people see something of the likeness of Christ in us? Or must they say that we in no way show in our lives that we belong to Christ? The early Christians in Antioch were called 'Christians' probably because it could be seen that they were Christ's men and women (Acts 11:26). Can that be seen in us?


Lord, we often fail to do Your will and we are sorry and must humbly ask You for Your forgiveness: but help us in Your strength to show that we belong to You by keeping Your word and living more day by day in the way that Your Son Jesus Christ lived. So may other people by what they see want to trust Him and to serve Him and make Him their Saviour and Master. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. When we think of God's commandments, should we still think of the Ten Commandments as they were given in the Old Testament? Do the commands of Christ in the New Testament replace these, or do they show us the way in which we should obey them?

See Romans 13:8-10, Mark 10:17-22, Luke 18:18-24, and Matthew 5:21-48.

2. What things do you find similar between what is said in these verses and in the words of Jesus as we have them in John 14:15 and 15:7-17? In what way is Matthew 7:21-23 similar?

3. In what ways do the following passages say that Christians should live (or 'walk') as Jesus lived: John 13:13-17, Romans 15:2-3, Ephesians 5:1-2, Philippians 2:5-8, Hebrews 12:1-2, and 1 Peter 2:21-23?


1. When the Bible speaks of 'knowing' God we should always realize that it does not mean just knowledge in the mind, but knowing God as a Person, expressed therefore in fellowship and obedience and service.

2. In verse five the R.S.V. speaks of our 'love for God' being 'perfected' as we keep God's word. Other versions have 'the love of God' instead of 'love for God'. Probably the meaning is this. God's love for us comes first, as John says in 4:10. God loves us and He wants His love to be in us. If that is so, if we let His love fill us and lead us to act in love for Him and obedience to Him, then that love of His is doing in us its perfect work. The New English Bible translates verse 5 'in the man who is obedient to his word, the divine love has indeed come to its perfection'.

3. Notice that these verses speak not only of our knowing God, but knowing and being sure that we are 'in Him'. That is, we are living in fellowship and union with Him as a branch is in a vine or tree (John 15:1-10, Romans 11:17-24) or as a limb is in the body (1 Corinthians 12). In Study 14 (on 4:13-16) we will look at this more carefully.