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How to Read 1-3 John Theologically

First, what does it mean to “read theologically”? An analogy illustrates: we heat our house with wood, and that means I split thousands of pieces of firewood each year for our two wood stoves. Every kind of tree has a different grain. The grain determines how the wood will split with an ax or steel wedge. To split effectively, you have to go with the grain, not against it.

Going with the Grain

It’s that way with the Bible and any book it contains, like the apostle John’s three epistles. Like maple or oak, 1–3 John have a certain grain, a quality and substance the reader needs to discern to grasp the epistle’s message and teaching. If you read against the grain, you will make it difficult to break through to a true glimpse of what’s there. In fact, you might miss it altogether.

To read 1–3 John theologically means to trace the grain of the writer’s own emphasis. Try it. You will notice that words referring to God are by far the most frequent significant terms found in those three books: “God,” “Father,” “Son,” “Christ,” and “Jesus” occur over 100 times. The next most frequently occurring word is the verb “love,” which occurs in various forms over 40 times. Twice John writes, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). Many of John’s references to love are indirect references to God.

So the first reason to read 1–3 theologically, which means reading with the grain and with an eye for what John talks the most about (God), is because that’s what the epistles are most about. But there are at least six other reasons.

(2) A theological reading helps access what John writes to promote: fellowship and joy. But this is not just human happiness. It is rather the “complete” joy of fellowship “with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3, 4). Religious people can easily congregate and gin up good vibes. But are they celebrating God and Christ or just themselves? In 2 John 4 and 3 John 3–4 we see John rejoicing in the holy fellowship that God grants to believers in Christ.

(3) A theological reading helps account for the urgency of John’s letters and the strong language to which he sometimes resorts. His thematic statement that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) is more emphatic in the original: “absolutely no darkness whatsoever!” we could translate. Based on 1:6–10 we can gather that some were living in darkness—sin—and acting like that was fine. John’s theological conviction—his strong sense of God’s presence, will, and truth—give a basis for strong and much needed counsel against lax living. The nature of God rules out making a cheap peace with sinful behavior in our lives and congregations (3:6, 9; 5:18). The nature of God rules out making a cheap peace with sinful behavior in our lives and congregations. Click To Tweet

(4) A theological reading that follows the grain of John’s own language will focus attention on Jesus Christ. In John’s letters, “theological” is often interchangeable with “christological.” It is Jesus’ blood that “cleanses us from all sin” (1:9). He is believers’ “advocate with the Father” (2:1). He bore divine wrath for human sin (2:2). Keeping his commandments is a marker of knowing him (2:3). Failure to keep them proves we are liars, however loud and flowery our confession (2:4). His life is a guide for our own (2:6).

The arch-liar and antichrist is “he who denies that Jesus is the Christ” (2:22; see also 2 John 7). The interchangeable tie between God and Christ is explicit: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (2:23). This is underscored in 2 John: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.”

(5) A theological reading can prevent the secondary from overshadowing the primary. In recent generations, scholars have advanced a reading of John’s letters that focused on warring subgroups vying for power in a “Johannine community.” But human rivalries as such are surely a shadowy background factor at most dimly reflected in John’s assertions and counsel. They are not his main focus—he mentions no names or places. The only event he touches on is vague—some have left John’s group (2:19). But friction between groups in the church or churches to whom John writes is surely secondary to the extended and positive message John presents. A more traditional reading of 1 John highlights “tests” to help readers be assured of their salvation. This may be a function or application of things John writes. But his more foundational focus is on God’s self-disclosure and self-giving in his Son, not on checklists for self-assessment.

If readers read with the grain of John’s testimony to the Father and the Son, things like assurance and obedience may follow. If they read against the grain, they will miss the transforming force of John’s scintillating and riveting testimony to God by attending to matters that are secondary in comparison.

(6) That leads to another benefit of a theological reading of John’s letters. Taken in connection with John’s Gospel, his letters attest to a distinct and glorious “born again” or “born from above” emphasis. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (John 3) establishes the basic need for inner transformation to “see the kingdom of God,” “enter the kingdom of God,” and arrive at “eternal life” through believing in Jesus (John 3:3, 5, 15). John’s letters school readers in that transformation. We can walk in the light (1 John 1:7). We can be forgiven and cleansed (1:9). We can be liberated from the enslavement of love for the world, to direct our transformed affections toward love for God (2:15–17).

The human condition, most think nowadays, is death and then nothing. Or maybe we become angels. In contrast, John teaches in the Gospel that to have the Son is to have eternal life; to lack him is to bear the wrath of God (John 3:36). In line with this, 1 John affirms that “the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (2:17). That’s eternal transformation that begins with faith in Christ in the here and now, a posture of trust that causes us to be “born of God” (1 John 5:1; see John 1:13).

(7) A final advantage of a theological reading of John’s letters is that by taking full account of God, it shines apt and accurate light on God’s love. As an author, John is not just full of true doctrine about God and Christ: he is filled with divine love. Six times he addresses readers as “beloved” in 1 John (2:7;3:2, 21; 4:1, 7, 11). “Love” is a prominent word in 1 and 2 John. John’s love for his readers is evident as he longs to greet them “face to face” (2 John 12; 3 John 14), not merely by letter. John does not just talk about love but models and emanates it for those with eyes to see.

In sum, a theological reading of John’s letters enables readers to track with the writer in joyful confession, “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). This is a world that includes all who welcome and commit to John’s testimony with and not against the grain.

Robert W. Yarbrough

Robert Yarbrough (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary. He is author of 1, 2, and 3 John in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series, which he co-edits. Other books include The Salvation-Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology; and The Gospel of John. With Walter Elwell he authored the widely used textbook Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, which has been translated into numerous languages. At the popular level Dr. Yarbrough is author of The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the New Testament. Dr. Yarbrough and his wife, Bernadine, have two sons.

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