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Bible Study Helps: The Epistles of John

Dec 19, 2018

As we come to the close of the New Testament we find these three short but important letters by John (authorship is disputed, but likely all three were penned by the same John who penned the fourth gospel). These epistles of John contain many important theological truths.

Perhaps a major theme found in these letters is that of certainty and assurance. Indeed, so important are these matters that I will spend all of my discussion in this article focusing on them. John Stott is well worth quoting in this regard:

To read the Epistles of John is to enter another world altogether, whose marks are assurance, knowledge, confidence, and boldness. The predominant theme of these Epistles is Christian certainty. Their characteristic verbs are ginoskein, ‘to perceive’ (15 times), and eidenai, ‘to know’ (25 times), while the characteristic noun is parresia, ‘confidence of attitude’ or ‘boldness of speech.” The Christian’s certainty is twofold—objective (that the Christian religion is true) and subjective (that he himself has been born of God and possesses eternal life). Both are expounded by John, who takes it for granted that this double assurance is right and healthy in all Christian people. His teaching about these certainties, their nature and the grounds on which they are built, urgently needs to be heard and heeded today.

Or as he puts it in the beginning of his classic book Christ the Controversialist:

The corridors of the New Testament reverberate with dogmatic affirmations beginning ‘We know’, ‘We are sure’, ‘We are confident’. If you question this, read the First Epistle of John in which verbs meaning ‘to know’ occur about forty times. They strike a note of joyful assurance which is sadly missing from many parts of the church today and which needs to be recaptured.

Others can be cited here. In his quite helpful volume on John’s gospel and letters, Andreas Kostenberger puts it this way:

The point of 1 John, then, is to instill confidence in true believers that their salvation is assured. At the same time, John in his first letter, similar to Jesus in John’s gospel, couples these words of assurance with exhortations to persevere (e.g., 1 John 2:5-6). True believers must keep God’s commandments…

Everyone who is truly born of God is assured that “the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them” (1 John 5:18). Thus 1 John, in further development of Jesus’ words of assurance and exhortation in the gospel, serves as a manifesto of Christian assurance, which paints a realistic, and supremely hopeful picture of Christian discipleship and perseverance, which is ultimately undergirded, not by human efforts, but by the power of God.

Or as Marianne Meye Thompson puts it in her brief commentary:

One theme that permeates 1 John in particular is the theme of assurance. Again and again the author assures his readers that they can be confident of their standing with God. Believers are the children of God (3:1-3), born of God, with new life. Believers have assurance of salvation because they trust in the God who gives salvation, new birth and new life. God keeps them in eternal life; it is not earned by one’s own efforts or superior moral achievements.

This theme is also given a great amount of attention in Christopher Bass’ 200-page book, That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John. In his conclusion he offers this summarisation:

This book has argued that John views the believer’s assurance of eternal life, which is grounded in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, as compatible with his or her ongoing need to persevere in righteous living. In fact, John has taught that these two ideas are inextricably tied together in that the believers’ confidence that they are children of God due to the work of Christ is set forth as a key impetus to their perseverance (3:1-3; 4:7–11; 5:18–21) and their perseverance in righteous living actually serves to bolster their assurance (e.g., 2:3-5; 3:14, 19, 24; 4:13).

Also worth quoting are some closing words from his appendix, “Who Keeps Whom”. He says this: “Throughout this epistle, John holds in tension the idea that the believer must persevere in his faith and that he can find assurance that he is in fact saved.”

But let me finish with some more thoughts from John Stott’s commentary on the Johannine epistles. He quotes Mark 13:13 (“He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved”), and offers this helpful commentary: They are saved

“not because salvation is the reward of endurance, but because endurance is the hall-mark of the saved. If the false teachers had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. This is stated as a principle. Those who are of us stay with us. Future and final perseverance is the ultimate test of a past participation in Christ (cf. Heb. 3:14).”

Here then are some recommended commentaries, nearly all reflecting a conservative and/or evangelical point of view:

1,2,3 John expository commentaries

Boice, James Montgomery, The Epistles of John (Baker, 1979, 2004)
Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Life in Christ: Studies in 1 John, 5 vols. (Crossway, 1993-1995)
O’Donnell, Douglas Sean, 1-3 John (REC, 2015)

1,2,3 John critical commentaries

Akin, Daniel, 1, 2, 3 John (NAC, 2001)
Barker, Glenn, 1, 2, 3 John (EBC, 1981)
Burge, Gary, The Letters of John (NIVAC, 1996)
Derickson, Gary, 1, 2 & 3 John (EEC, 2014)
Jackman, David, The Message of John’s Letters (BST, 1988)
Jobes, Karen, 1, 2, 3 John (ZECNT, 2014)
Johnson, Thomas, 1, 2, and 3 John (NIBC, 1993)
Kistemaker, Simon, James and I-III John (NTC, 1986)
Kruse, Colin, The Letters of John (PNTC. 2000)
Marshall, I. Howard, The Epistles of John (NICNT, 1978)
Smalley, Stephen, 1, 2, 3 John (WBC, 1984)
Stott, John, The Epistles of John (TNTC, 1964)
Thompson, Marianne Meye, 1-3 John (IVPNTC, 1992)
Witherington, Ben, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus,1-2 Timothy, 1-3 John (IVP, 2006)
Yarbrough, Robert, 1-3 John (BECNT, 2008)
Wright, N. T., The Early Christian Letters: James, Peter, John, and Judah (WJK, 2011)

Other studies

Christopher, Bass, That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John. B&H, 2008.
Kostenberger Andreas, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Zondervan, 2009.

My recommendations on commentaries – if I have to narrow things down a bit – would be to make use of Burge, Jobes, Kruse, Stott and Yarbrough.

Happy study and happy reading.

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3 Responses to Bible Study Helps: The Epistles of John

  • Hi Bill,

    I really appreciated this overview of John’s letters.

    I found interesting the statement that the believer’s assurance of eternal life, which is grounded in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, is compatible with their ongoing requirement to persevere in righteous living. A kind of tension.

    This makes sense to me. And it is what I conclude from reading the Bible. For example, the Bible states that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). Therefore righteous living must accompany belief.

    However, so many Christians claim this is salvation based on works. But an adulterer, especially with a sexual addiction, MUST do some work to turn from their sin.

    So why is ‘works’ in salvation usually treated as a heretical idea? Is it just faith alone in Jesus, or is works also part of our salvation?

    Kyle

  • Thanks Kyle. I seek to answer that in other articles. The first part of salvation, justification, is not of works, but solely of faith. But the remainder of the Christian life, sanctification, is working out our salvation in cooperation with God. So we are not saved by good works, but we are saved onto good works. See here eg:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/

  • Thanks for this article, Bill.
    I’m always suspicious when theologians use phrases like “Johannine literature”, “Pauline epistles”, and “Mosaic pentateuch”, as these can be code for denying that John, Paul or Moses ever existed. Hmm, I wonder if Bill Muehlenberg really exists, and if so, does he really write the articles on this blog? Instead of talking about “Bill Muehlenberg’s blog”, perhaps we should talk about the “Williamite website”, the “Muehlenite monologues”, the “Book of Bill” or the “Magna Muehlenbergia”.

    The author of this website, whoever that is :mrgreen:, doesn’t seem to get as many comments on Biblical and theological articles — perhaps “we” don’t find them as entertaining as articles on politics or current goings on. Sometimes, “we” think we’ve done something by reading your latest piece, when we’ve really only entertained ourselves for half an hour or so, and enjoyed being horrified by the latest excesses of the homosexual activists, for example.

    John’s letters are highly relevant to the current political situation, because they expose such self-deceit.

    If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

    People who call themselves “gay Christians” simply deceive themselves in this “Johannine” sense, with their false belief that their sexual behaviour is righteous, despite the fact that God has called sodomy an abomination.

    The LGBTIQA activists are so successful at deceiving the public, because they have first deceived themselves. Sodomy is an unhealthy, immoral, and disgusting behaviour which spreads disease and dysfunction. There is nothing “gay” (as in happy) about it.

    Christians who supported “marriage equality” deliberately forgot that God created male and female, to unite as one flesh in marriage, a union of difference, not sameness. Two of the same can’t join together. If we say two men or two women can become one flesh, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

    John refers to the church as “the chosen lady”, meaning the bride of Christ. The last and ultimate marriage of Christ and his Church, will likewise be a union of difference, not sameness. “Marriage equality” says there’s no difference between consummation and abomination, and thus no difference between righteousness and sin. “If we say we have no sin…” — then we don’t need a Saviour, in which case we will find ourselves shut out of his wedding feast, wailing and gnashing our teeth in utter darkness.

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