The Threefold Secret of Life

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


'Beloved, I am writing to you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light, is already shining. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and in it there is no cause for stumbling. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes' (2:7-11).

We have thought of the first test of our knowing God and being in the light: if we truly know God we will obey Him. The call to obey God sounds out from the beginning of the Bible to the end. This is true about love also - and love is the second test. Do we know God? then there will be love in our lives. All that the law required can be summed up in love- love for God, love for others. The Old Testament says: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart. and with all your soul, and with all your might' (Deuteronomy 6:5), and 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus said, 'On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets' (Matthew 22:40).

a. The old and the new.

So the command to love is a very old one. These Christians to whom John wrote had it `from the beginning', from when they first believed in Jesus Christ. It was 'from the beginning' also in that we have it in the Bible at the very start. With Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) we see the choice between love and hatred. The commandment is old, and yet in Christ it is new. We would never have seen as clearly that all God's commands are summed up in the one word love if it were not for the teaching of Jesus. (see John 15:9-17, Luke 10:25-27 and Mark 10:17-22). Above all, His life expressed perfect love - for His Father and for people. Wherever He went, He showed love - and so there was light. Darkness passed away, and light came. Light shone into the lives of the sick, the demon-possessed, the sad and the fallen, as He in love gave Himself to them and brought His healing and power and peace. Then that love was shown to the uttermost when He died on the cross - so that John says later (3:16), 'By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us'. Now we are called to have that love. It was 'true in him'; it was real in him, it must be true and real 'in us'.

b. Light and darkness.

Because of His love, light came into the world in a new way when Jesus came. Wherever love triumphs, darkness passes away, and there is light. Where there is love, there is light. Where there is hatred, there is darkness. But what is love? What is hatred? Love is not just feeling. Love means that we want and will work for, live for and even die for what is highest and best for others. Love for God means that we will live for Him, do what He wants us to do, and honour Him in the world. Love for other people means helping and serving them so that what is best for them and what they most need will be brought to them. Hatred may be seeking evil for others. But it may also be just not caring about them, because we care only for ourselves and our own interests. Selfishness and love for others cannot exist together. We cannot put ourselves first and at the same time truly love God. The Bible (and all human life for that matter) is full of examples of love and the light it brings and it is full of examples of hatred and the darkness it brings.

Saul, the first king of Israel, was a man who had great opportunities, but by turning from God's ways he shut out the love of God from his life. As a result he was filled with jealousy and hatred for David and time after time he tried to kill him. He finished up with a life dark and gloomy and in despair he went to a witch to try and speak to the dead prophet Samuel. In the same story we see love in Saul's son Jonathan. Jonathan was not jealous that God chose David to be king, in fact he risked his own safety to save David's life and to strengthen his hands in God (1 Samuel 18:1-5, 19:1-7, 20:1-42, 23:15-18).

We turn over to the New Testament and we see one of the disciples of Jesus turning aside from the love of Jesus, as he let the love of money come in and get possession of his life, till he was willing to sell his Master for the sake of 30 pieces of silver. Vividly John tells us what happened when Judas made the final decision to betray Jesus to the chief priest: 'He immediately went out; and it was night' (John 13:30). It was night in the world outside, but it was night also in the soul of Judas. But there was light that shone from the cross of Christ and that light was in the hearts of the 'disciple whom he loved' and His mother and Mary Magdalene and the other women, who were there with Him faithful to the end (John 19:25-27).

c. Blindness or sight.

We often say that the world is a dark place - it is so often dark and unhappy because of the lack of love. Christians themselves often fail to let the light of love shine in the darkness. When we are without love we are not only like people in darkness, but we are like those who are blind. We stumble in the way because we are not walking in God's way which is the way of love and light - and we also let other people stumble too. Notice the four things which are said in verse 11 to be true of our lives when they are without love:

1. We are in the darkness - instead of being in the light of God's grace.

2. We are walking in the darkness - without purpose or meaning for our lives.

3. We do not know where we are going - we do not understand the way, and we do not make for a clear goal.

4. We are blind - 'the darkness has blinded (our) eyes'.

It is said that animals which live in dark pits for a long time without light can lose the use of their eyes, and become blind. If we try to live without the light of love in our lives, we become blind. We are not only in the darkness, but the darkness is in us. That is what happened to Saul and to Judas. We may want to live in the light of God's way. We may pray for guidance, but if we do not have love, for God and for others, we will never have the answer to our prayers, because the way God wants to lead us will always be a way of love. We may want to understand other people and the situation they are in, but we will never understand without love. Love is the key to the hearts of others, and the door to our understanding and helping them.


Think quietly now of the words of John 13:34-35, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 and Galatians 5:22; then make Paul's prayer in I Thessalonians 3:12-13 a prayer for yourself.

For further thought and study.

Consider other passages of the Bible which speak of our living 'in the light' or of God's giving us light; such passages are Psalm 36:9, 43:3, 112:4, 119:105, Proverbs 4:18-19, John 3:19-21, Ephesians 5:8. What do these passages say that we must be or do to walk in the light? What do they say are the results of our walking in the light?


1. The words 'from the beginning' in verse 7 could mean from the beginning of their Christian lives (which seems the meaning of the words in 2:24 and 3:11), or from the beginning of the Christian church (which is perhaps the meaning in 2 John 5) or from the beginning of all things (which is the meaning in 1:1 and 2:13-14). It is certainly true to say that love is as 'old as the creation of the race, old as the love and fatherhood of God' (Findlay).

2. It is not quite certain whether we should translate verse 10 as 'in it there is no cause for stumbling', that is in the light there is nothing to make one stumble, or whether we should read it as 'in him there is no cause for stumbling'. This second way of taking it may mean that the person who walks in the light 'has no reason to stumble' himself (Phillips), or 'his life puts no stumbling-block in the way of others' (Weymouth). In any case all of these things are true, and we can apply them all to ourselves.