Lesson Focus: John wants us to live lives that have been freed from sin. To do this, we must first recognize that sin has had power over us, but that Jesus’ sacrifice frees us from that sin and enables us to walk in his light.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Confess that there is no sin or darkness in God.
Confess that we are sinful people who have been dominated by sin.
Confess that Jesus has freed us from slavery to sin so that we might walk in God’s light.
Be encouraged to go and live a life free from sin.
Catch up on the story: First John is categorized as an epistle or letter with other New Testament works just as the first letter to the Corinthians and the like. It is categorized as such without the normal markings of a first-century letter. For instance, unlike Paul’s letters, we have no greeting. There is no mention of who the author is or to whom the letter is written. Nevertheless, First John gets the epistle label. While the work lacks these formal markings, what becomes clear as one reads the letter is that the author is speaking to a specific community of faith that is dealing with specific issues regarding Christology, or how one understands and talks about the nature and person of Jesus Christ.
It is not crucial to spend too much time seeking to discover a definitive answer for both the author of First John and its recipients. What we do know, however, is that the text presupposes the work of the Gospel of John. The prologue (verses 1-4) strongly echoes the prologue of John’s gospel. There are enough similarities between the Gospel of John and First John that one might suppose that John is the author of both. At the very least, we can say that John’s followers might be responsible for the epistles that bear his name. For simplicity’s sake, we will take the view that the author of the Gospel of John and First John are the same.
The Text: The Prologue (1:1-4) By the nature of the way in which John structures the original Greek, we learn that the focus of this prologue, and the entire work, is the “word of life.” What is this “word of life?” It is that which was from the very beginning. Here John echoes the opening to the Gospel that bears his name. This “word of life” is none other than the pre-existent second person of the Trinity. For John’s audience, there seems to have been some tension concerning the nature of Jesus. Some would have emphasized Jesus’ divinity while downplaying his humanity. A heresy, Docetism, will spring up which describes Jesus as only appearing to be human. Others will say that Jesus could not be fully God and still be human.
John begins to address this tension by proclaiming that Jesus is this “word of life.” He has been from the beginning. In fact, John says, we have heard him with our ears, seen him with our eyes, and touched him with our hands. This brings a concrete reality to this “word of life” that at once brings together Jesus’ divinity and his humanity. Jesus was someone that John and others could hear, see and touch. The “we” language of the prologue does two things. First, it declares that this witness of Jesus as word of life is not an individual thing, but was witnessed by the faith community’s earliest believers. This is not just one guy’s vision; it is the witness of the community. The second thing the “we” language does is it invites his hearers to join, in a fuller sense, that community of faith by embracing both the humanity and divinity of Jesus. We are not to suppose that the original hearers of John’s letter are non-Christians. The rest of the tone of the letter will not support this. Rather, the letter is addressed to those who already believe but are in danger of slipping into heresy.
John’s intent is to proclaim the centrality of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus is both the message and the center of the message. He has proclaimed to us the nature of the Father and we now proclaim what we have heard, seen, and touched. This proclamation is so that those who hear it might enter into fellowship with the believing community, whose fellowship is rooted and grounded in fellowship with the Father and the Son. This fellowship, however, is not just any fellowship. It is the fellowship of the Trinity, the love that the Father has for the Son, and the Son has for the Father. It is mutual love, a love that always seeks the good of the other person. It is the love that is sent out, in the power of the Spirit, to draw others into its fellowship.
In this prologue John is reminding us that God himself became one of us: a living, breathing, speaking person, so that we might fully know the Father and enter into fellowship with him. For all of time at that!
If… (1:5-10) This message of good news and fellowship with the triune God that John received is now proclaimed to us. The first message of this proclamation is that God is light, pure light, in which there is no darkness. Light has significant meaning for John, both here and in his Gospel. This description of God as light concerns both his nature and being. It means that God is absolute in his glory, in his truth, and in his holiness. In other words, God is without deficiency in regards to his power and might, his truthfulness, and his set-apartness from creation. Because God is light there is no room for the darkens of sin and death.
The next few verses are set off by a series of “if”s. Because God is true light we must walk in the light. If John says, we are walking in the darkness there can be no way that we are enjoying true fellowship with God. Those who inhabit the darkness, that is walk in sin, yet say that they live in the light, deceive themselves. They may say all the right things. They may have all the right answers, but they do not do what is true. Wesley says this about the verse, “If we say—Either with our tongue, or in our heart, if we endeavor to persuade either ourselves or others, we have fellowship with him—While we walk, either inwardly or outwardly, in darkness—In sin of any kind, we do not the truth—Our actions prove that the truth is not in us.” But, John says, if we walk in the light we are able to have fellowship, not just with God, but with one another as well. As we step out into the light of Jesus’ love, it exposes our sin. Then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from those sins. The light exposes us for who we really are. Christ’s sacrifice brings us into full fellowship with God.
John moves on by presenting a tension within the Christian life. In the first place, as he has already said, if we walk in the darkness of sin then we do not have fellowship with God. We are liars. But in the next set of conditional statements John says that if we claim to be without sin we are liars too! Perhaps, John is speaking to those who are not yet in the faith but who claim to be without sin. Keeping in mind that John’s letter is likely not written to those who have not yet come to place their faith in Jesus, this seems not to be the case.
If John is really speaking to a group of believers, then he is likely making a distinction between different kinds of perfectionism. The first type, which it seems like some who have some influence in the community that John is addressing would espouse, asserted that they were sinless and not guilty of committing sins since their conversion. Perhaps the form of perfectionism that John is combating is close to those older Nazarenes I grew up with who would say things like this, “I’ve been saved and sanctified and haven’t sinned since!” Implicit in this kind of statement is that the movement toward Christlikeness is over. The reality is, in my experience anyway, that those who made these kinds of statements failed to live out their Christlikeness. In John’s words, they deceived themselves.
The second kind of perfectionism, of which John will speak and advocate for in chapters 3 and 5, deals with the stopping of habitual sin. It is not that they are unable to sin, but that, through fellowship with one another, fellowship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Christian is capable of not sinning. This is the nature of perfectionism that John Wesley will promote. As Christians, we are to give ourselves over to the power of the Spirit’s work in our lives so that we may walk fully in the light. Our walking in the light, by virtue of it being in the light, necessitates that our sins are exposed and done away with. We once walked in darkness, but now that we walk in the light we have put away those habitual sins.
Now, in the very next phrase, John will pen one of the lines that every student of evangelism will memorize, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” In the context of the current conversation, I believe that John is referring to the sins of those who are moving toward Christlikeness but who occasionally stumble because of the weakness of the spirit and the flesh. When we do so, we must confess, that is, bring those deeds into the light of God’s love. Here’s the good news: those sins will be forgiven and the Spirit will continue to clean us from all unrighteousness.
Here John confesses that it is because God is faithful and just that we will be forgiven and cleansed. Often we hold these two ideas at odds with one another. A proper reading of both the Old and New Testaments will show that God’s faithfulness and his justice go hand in hand. God is faithful,
Because he had promised this blessing, by the unanimous voice of all his prophets. [God is] just—Surely then he will punish: no, for this very reason he will pardon. This may seem strange; but upon the evangelical principle of atonement and redemption, it is undoubtedly true. Because when the debt is paid, or the purchase made, it is the part of equity to cancel the bond, and consign over the purchased possession: both to forgive us our sins—To take away all the guilt of them, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness—To purify our souls from every kind and every degree of it.
John rounds out the section with one last conditional statement. If we claim sinlessness of the first order we discussed above, we not only declare ourselves liars, but we make God out to be a liar as well!
Little Children! (2:1-2) Here John’s pastoral intentions come out. He addresses his audience as his little children. He is not talking down to his audience but is addressing them with a term of endearment. His purpose for writing is so that they may not sin by saying that they are without the possibility of sin. In a way, he is urging those who are errant in his audience to confess their arrogant sin of presumed sinlessness.
In doing so they give themselves over, not to a vengeful and vindictive God, but to Christ who is our advocate with the Father. John will say that, by virtue of Jesus being our atoning sacrifice, Jesus is able to present our case before the Father who will forgive because he is faithful and just. This is an open invitation for confession. We can confess, not out of fear, but in the confident hope that one who is greater than us speaks on our behalf.
Not only is God’s forgiveness of sins for those who are a part of the faith, for those who walk in fellowship with God, but for the whole world. Part of what may have been at work in John’s context is that some might have presumed that due to God’s revealing of himself to them, that God’s salvation was just for them. John dismisses this idea. God has revealed himself to the believing community so that they might begin and continue to reveal God to the whole world.
So What…? Two things are important as we begin our journey through First John. First, even though this letter is written mainly to those who are already, in some form at least, a part of the believing community of faith, it speaks to that outside of the faith. With no apology, John points to the reality and nature of sin. Sin is a part of who we are to the very core. We are all sinful people. Jesus Christ, the fullest expression of God, is light and life. There is no sin, no darkness at all in him. We cannot have life apart from the light that Jesus brings. John invites those who are in darkness, those who refuse to believe that they are in darkness, to quit deceiving themselves and step into the light. Our God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from them.
Secondly, John’s message speaks to those of us who have been a part of the faith community for a long time. It challenges us to look at our lives retrospectively. Are we resting on the work that Christ has done in our life in the past? Do we think, that because of what Jesus and the Spirit has done in our life, we are without habitual sin? Are we mindful of Christ’s call for us to grow in grace? John urges us to bring our habitual and eventual slip-ups to Christ in confession. As we do so, we are able to enjoy continued fellowship with one another and with the Father. At the end of the day, John wants us, and the whole world it seems, to walk in the light and fellowship with God. We can do this because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
There is a historical and tangible reality to God in Jesus Christ. God has revealed himself to us. He was something people could hear, see and touch.
God is inviting us to walk in fellowship with him and his church. Confession is an important part of our continued fellowship with God and one another.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Our holiness comes from the work of the Spirit in our lives. It is contingent upon our continual confession of sin. The Christian sanctified life is one of constant reflection on our actions and attitude.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
The call is to become a holy people who understand the holy nature of God and that we cannot walk in sin and remain in fellowship with God. The Spirit gives us the power to be free from the need to sin. Therefore, we should seek to walk in the light.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
John begins by declaring what “we” have seen and heard and touched concerning the word of life. What does John mean by this?
John says that he is proclaiming what he has witnessed so that his hearers might have fellowship with him and with God. How might fellowship with a believing community of faith and fellowship with God be connected?
We confess that God is triune, meaning that God is three in one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son, the Son returns the love of the Father, and the Spirit is sent out by the Father and the Son, in love, to draw humanity into fellowship with the Triune God. How might this be a model for us as a believing community of faith?
In verse 5, John declares that the content of the message he is proclaiming is that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.” What does it mean that God is light? What does darkness represent?
What does John mean by “walking in darkness?” What does it mean to “walk in the light as he himself is in the light” mean?
What kind of connection might there be between walking in the light and having fellowship with one another? With God?
John also says that those who say that they have no sin are liars. It appears that John is contradicting his earlier statement in verse 6. How might we reconcile that apparent contradiction?
John says that if we confess our sins, our habitual sins and our slip ups, God is faithful and just and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In what contexts can we be transparent and confess our sins?
 Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Revised edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009), 20.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 656.
 Smalley, 30.
 Wesley, 657.