A wealthy man died with no heirs to his fortune. Within days dozens of people showed up at his lawyer’s office claiming to be his children. The attorney had the difficult task of identifying the true children among the frauds.
Similarly, God wants to give His children a rich inheritance in Christ. There are many who claim to be His children, but some are not. Identifying the true children of God is John’s task in his three letters. He states his purpose,
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13; John 20:30-31).
John wants us to have confidence in our fellowship with God and His people (1 John 1:3-4). So, John uses the word “know” over forty times, and the word “truth” over twenty times, because he wants us to know how to recognize the true children of God. His writing probes our conscience to reveal if we bear the image of our Father, or not.
The biggest problem John’s readers faced was not the searing pain of persecution for the faith, but the subtle perversion of it. Some people left the church because they taught a different message from the apostles (1 John 2:19). These false teachers relentlessly tried to draw others away with them (1 John 2:26; 4:1), and even traveled from church to church with their message (1 John 2:18-19; 2 John 7).
They differed from the apostolic teaching in two major areas: First, the nature of the Christ, and second the nature of God’s children.
They rejected that Jesus was the Christ (1 John 2:22; 5:1), and denied that the Christ came in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). As a result, Jesus’ death was unnecessary to provide forgiveness (1 John 5:6-8). These teachings left the church with fears about the certainty of the salvation.
In addition, the false teachers didn’t put a high premium on obeying God’s commands (1 John 2:3-5), living righteously (1 John 1:6; 3:7-9), or loving fellow believers (1 John 2:16-19; 4:20). These teachings left the church unsure about the affect Christ should have in a person’s life.
John answered these false teachings and the uncertainties they generated by providing three clear ways to identify a true child of God. John does not present these “forms of identification” in a linear fashion, one following the other; but in a circular way, rotating through them again and again to imprint them on our minds.
Today we can verify family lineage by checking our DNA. This molecule carries all the genetic markers that undeniably link us to our true parentage. It may be helpful to think of John giving us three letters that contain spiritual markers that identify us as true children of God. Those three letters: BLR. God’s children are known by what they Believe; how they Love; and how they live Righteously.
Believe Jesus Is the Christ. Some argue that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are a loving person. John does not separate the two. He knows that behavior follows belief. Unless you believe the right things, you won’t live the right way.
Most importantly, God’s child believes Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1; also 2:23; 3:23; 5:10), the Son of God (1 John 5:5 also 5:10-13; 2 John 9), who came in the flesh (1 John 4:2; also 3:8; 2 John 7). These are foundational, wonderful truths of our faith, and John offers us a number of reasons to believe them.
First, these truths are verified by eyewitnesses. The certainty of Jesus’ deity and humanity is something that was seen, touched and thoroughly examined by the author himself (1 John 1:1-3). The gospel is not a mythical story, but a physical reality.
In addition, these truths are long established. John uses the phrase, “from the beginning” nine times to show that the gospel message was established by the apostles (1 John 1:1; 2:7, 14, 24-26; 3:11; 2 John 5,6; also John 16:12-15; 20:20). That message is consistent and reliable because it came from God, and anything that differs from it comes from the world (1 John 4:5-6).
God’s true children take their Father’s word seriously. We examine every belief and practice by what we heard “from the beginning” in the apostle’s teaching (Acts 20:32).
Love The Brethren. The second marker of our spiritual parentage is love. Since “God is love,” those who are born of God will be characterized by love (1 John 4:7-8). Most notably, we are to reflect the Father’s love toward His children. “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11, also 4:20-21). If we fail to love God’s children we align ourselves with the linage of Cain who murdered his brother, and have no eternal life (1 John 3:10-15; also 2:9-11). Our God-like love is expressed by a supportive fellowship that meets real needs (1 John 4:16-19; 3 John 8).
In physical families brothers and sisters may have no contact or concern for each other. Not so in God’s family. You only bear the family image when you love the family like the Father does.
Live Righteously. The first marker relates to our relationship with God—believe His truth. The second marker relates to our relationship with others—love God’s family. The third marker relates to our relationship with ourselves—live God’s truth.
Obedience is a defining characteristic of God’s children. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9; 2:3-6). So, they “walk in the light” and “do not love the world” but rather “walk in the truth” (1 John 1:7; 2:15; 3 John 3). God’s children long for Jesus to return so they can finally and fully look like Him, until then, “everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3).
God’s children are not simply identified by rituals attended or names recorded in a directory. They are identified by “seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33) in every area and ambition of life.
John’s letters ask you to test your beliefs about Jesus and examine your life as His disciple. When the test is taken and passed it results in a blessed assurance—Jesus is God who came in the flesh to save us, and He is worthy of all our love and obedience. This confidence makes us a courageous and happy people.
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14).
The Sequels! 2 and 3 John
The letter of 1 John clearly explains the necessity of truth and love as the test of Christian fellowship. The letters of 2 and 3 John apply these two principles to the practical life of the local church.
2 John deals with the truth being compromised. The “elect lady,” seeks to express loving hospitality and is unwittingly supporting deceivers who are corrupting the truth about Christ. She has love, but is in danger of compromising the truth.
3 John deals with love being compromised. Diotrephes is nowhere called a false teacher, but he is a false lover. His love is self-love, not brotherly love. If Gaius follows his example he is in danger of compromising love.
These short letters of 2 and 3 John form a powerful testimony to the church of the pressing need to abide in the truth and express genuine love for the brethren.
The message is in the middle. When the organization of 2 and 3 John are considered together a helpful pattern is seen. This pattern reveals a central principle upon which each letter hangs. This principle is first stated in the negative, then in the positive; and fellowship with God is at stake. Seeing the centrality of this principle allows the student to more clearly see the point John is seeking to drive home.
In 2 John the central principle is: Do not leave the doctrine of Christ, but abide in it, because your fellowship with God depends upon it. Therefore, the key to applying 2 John is having a proper desire to abide in the doctrine of Christ. This desire will help the “elect lady” refuse to support those who have left this doctrine.
In 3 John the central principle is: Do not imitate what is evil, but what is good, because your fellowship with God depends upon it. Therefore, the key to applying 3 John is to be careful who you imitate. Gaius may be tempted to imitate the approach of Diotrephes and abandon his care for the brethren. However, such a choice would be a mistake and forfeit his fellowship with God.