The Threefold Secret of Life

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


'Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth. Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life. I write this to you about those who would deceive you; but the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him' (2:18-27).

Sometimes we hear people say that it does not matter what a person believes as long as he is sincere, or as long as he lives in the right way. What we do and say and are, however, depends on what we believe. So these verses say that just as obedience to God and love for others are two marks of the real Christian, so there is this third mark - a true belief about Jesus. The problem this letter had to face was that there were those who called themselves Christians and were members of the Church (though later, as verse 19 says, they went out from it), but they did not really hold the Christian faith. It was a time of conflict - Christ against Antichrist, those who stood for Christ and those who opposed Him or sought to put another Lord in His place. Jesus had warned that such conflict would increase and that there would be false Christ's trying to gain the obedience and service of His followers (see Matthew 24:21-25 and Mark 13:19-23). The apostles added to the warning (see Acts 20:29-30, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, 2 Timothy 3:1-5). So it could be taken as a sign of the approach of the final trials, though we must always recognize that man's reckoning of time is not the same as God's.

a. Truth or Error.

The error spoken of in these verses was not that of people who had never heard or known the Christian gospel and who held to some other religion. It was the error of those who had known what 'the truth is in Jesus' (Ephesians 4:21) and had rejected it. In Matthew 16:16 we read of Peter's great confession of Jesus as 'the Christ, the Son of the living God', and Jesus said that on this rock He would build His Church. These great things are emphasized here as the very heart of the Christian's faith. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed One of God, the promised Messiah, the One sent to be Lord and King over His people. It is 'antichrist' to deny Him or to try to put someone else in His place as Lord. Many 'anti-christs' have come like that (verse 18) and there are many with us still. Furthermore, Jesus is the Son of God. As Hebrews 1:1-2 puts it (like the parable of Jesus in Mark 12:1-12), there have been many messengers and servants of God who brought His word to men, but Jesus is the very Son of God, making God known to us in a unique way (John 1:18). To refuse to believe in Him is to refuse the Father's gift (John 3:16), to refuse to accept the Father's witness to Him by word (Matthew 3:17), by His mighty actions (Acts 2:22) and by raising Him from the dead (Acts 2:24, 32, Romans 1:4). To know that witness (see 5:9-10) and to reject it, is to be guilty of the greatest lie and the worst denial possible (verses 22-23).

b. The results of faith and unbelief.

Since the Christian gospel had been preached the way had been made clear. To believe in Jesus Christ is to have life, eternal life. The great prayer in John 17:3 says this too: 'This is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou halt sent'. This does not mean just to know and believe certain things about Jesus Christ. True faith accepts Him for who He is - the Christ of God, God's very Son. That true faith trusts Him and then lives in obedience and love. To turn from Him is to turn from life. To turn from Jesus Christ is to reject God's way of bringing us into fellowship, into right relationship, with Himself. It is of the greatest importance that all who have had the opportunity to know and believe should take seriously that opportunity. To them it must be said with the greatest possible earnestness: 'Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life' (verses 24-25).

c. Deciding between truth and error.

Sometimes the difference between truth and error, between right and wrong, is very clear. Sometimes it is not easy to decide. People come with strange new teachings. Here we have seen the emphasis on clinging to the gospel that has been heard from the beginning, the message that came from Christ Himself and from His apostles. We now have the New Testament scriptures to guide us to know that. In the early days, however, there were people who professed to have that gospel, but who added many strange things to it and took away its real meaning. So today there are those who profess to use the Scriptures, but who interpret them in an unsatisfactory way. How can we know the truth? Verse 20 says, 'You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know', and then verse 27 adds, 'the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you ... his anointing teaches you'. But what does this mean?

In Old Testament times prophets, priests and kings were anointed with oil, and that was an outward sign of the spiritual gifts that would enable them to do the work that they were set apart to do. The Christian's anointing - given to every Christian (see Acts 2:17-18) - is the Holy Spirit the Spirit of truth. He is given to us to lead us into all truth (John 14:16-17, 26, 16:13-15). When it says that 'you have no need that any one should teach you', it does not mean that we can do without the help of Christian teachers, still less that we can depend on an inner light instead of the Scriptures God has given to us. But it does mean that we are all given the Holy Spirit to teach us the truth of the Scriptures, and to help us, as we humbly depend on God, to know whether the teaching of men is true or false. The Spirit of truth is indeed God's great gift to us, to lead us into His truth and to guide us in His way for us in our daily lives.


Lord, human words sound in my ears day and night: help me to hear Your word and to know that it is Yours. Human teaching brings both truth and error; by Your Spirit of Truth help me to reject error and to recognize the truth. Then give me the courage to hold to that truth and strength to live by it, for the sake of Jesus, Your Christ, Your Son, whom You sent to be our Lord and our Saviour. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

1. Look up Acts 2:17-18, John 14:16-17, 26 and 16:13-15 mentioned above and also 1 Corinthians 2:9-16 and 2 Peter 1: 19-21 and consider the ways in which the Holy Spirit is spoken of as bringing the truth of God to us.

2. One word in the original Greek language of this letter is used some 23 times in 1 John. It is the word translated 'abide' or 'remain' or 'continue'. Look up the following passages in 1 John: 2:6, 10, 14, 24-28, 3:6, 9,14-17,24, 4:12-16, and see what the Christian is to 'continue' or 'remain' in and what he is to see remains in him. Compare this also with the teaching of John's gospel, especially John 15:1-16.


1. In the Greek language in which this letter was written, the word for Christ is Christos (the anointed One), then we have Antichristos and the word used for 'anointing' is chrisma. This chrisma or anointing (the Holy Spirit) helps us to know the difference between the Christ and Antichrist.

2. Some versions in verse 20 have 'you all know' and others have 'you know all things'. The first is probably right, and we can understand it to mean that all Christians have the Holy Spirit to teach them. If we took the second meaning, we would need to understand it as saying that we have knowledge of all the essential things for our living our lives in the service of Christ.