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Jesus and the Johannine Letters

The rampant enthusiasm that shines through John’s letters reveals the heart of his message—there’s a whole new meaning and purpose to life because God has come to us, and will come again! Writing more like a hyperactive teenager than an old man in his eighties or nineties, John is the archetypal convincer, the witness giving evidence of what he himself has seen, known, heard—and even handled (1 John 1:1). This blatant promotion is entirely justified because John is the last living “authority” who can speak personally about living and working with Jesus, and how this experience totally transformed his life. And not just him, but the whole Christian community, now facing threats from revisionists and re-interpreters who sought to deny that physical reality of Jesus as God, that God had really come in human flesh.

Nor is this some nostalgic memoir, rather a living, dynamic word to all who’ll listen—for it’s not so much a recounting of the past, but the implications of “Jesus as God” theme for now and the future. For John is a theologian of hope two millennia before Juergen Moltmann’s “Theology of Hope,” or Wolfhart Pannenberg’s “Faith and Reality,” or Carl Braaten’s “The Future of God.” Writing with incredible clarity, John forcefully expresses his conviction that recognizing God in Christ changes everything. For it’s John who recorded Jesus’ words to Philip that “if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father,” that “I and my father are one,” and that consequently he calls us no longer servants but friends because now we know “the Master’s business.” We are on the inside with God, because we know and trust him as he truly is.

Not in some vague, theoretical way, either. Here is the truth of the gospel in summary form. In these few pages, written down by John in the midst of all the busy-ness of life, we have a window into the motivation for his life in the words and person of his friend Jesus. John sums it up for us—how to know and trust Jesus, the one who came to show us what the Father is like. Not some philosophical musings or dogmatic presentation—this is the breathless excitement of one who truly knows, whose main purpose in life is to communicate the incredible good news of God! Here is his statement of trust in God, his expression of faith: absolutely convinced, practically relevant, and intimately personal. This is the good news from the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” As Martin Luther wrote of 1 John: “I have never read a book written in simpler words than this one, and yet the words are inexpressible.”

Which, when considering issues of authorship, means that there have rarely been questions that this really is the John of the Gospels writing, for to deny this is to deny the authenticity of the Epistles themselves, and to completely reject their message—for it is John’s message. This is the testimony of John, the eyewitness: “We must write and tell you about it, because the more that fellowship extends the greater the joy it brings to us who are already in it.” (1 John 1:4 Phillips). Here is the reason why—not just for writing this letter, but for sharing the truth as it is in Jesus.

John follows the example of his Friend and Lord. Not for him the long theological words, the formal treatise. John is still a son of thunder in his conviction and his confidence. He uses powerful, simple words to tell his message. In fact, he only uses a limited vocabulary, and some turn away saying, “This is not serious theology.” But like Jesus, John shares the truth about God in the best way—in words a child can understand, but with the most profound meaning. Before his death, my father wrote to me about John’s letters: “John’s Epistles are striking reminders to me of how easy it is to lose touch with ‘the simplicity which is toward Christ.’ We need John’s advice to be really living the Christian life day by day—‘If we say and do not…we lie,’ but if we walk in the light we have peace with God….”

Most of all, John is concerned to explain meaning. The other gospel writers focus on events; John wants to know what they mean. Here in John’s epistles as well as his Gospel we have the result of a whole life’s reflection on the meaning and implications of the life of Jesus. This is John’s last will and testament, his declaration of what is truly essential in God’s glorious good news. It’s as if someone had come to John for a last interview, asking “So John, what is the most important in these beliefs of yours? Give me the gospel in a nutshell!” So John cuts out all that is not absolutely necessary, and provides a wonderful and inspiring vision of God and his gracious gift of salvation, given and revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

John is concerned that the evidence—what he knows and has experienced—is not lost. He writes these letters to deal with both practical issues and for continuity—for there are already ideas floating around the Christian community that need to be refuted. As Paul says, the “mystery of iniquity” is already at work in the church, as some sought to deny Christ’s physical presence (he only “seemed” to take on human form, for a God could not be part of the “evil” of this physical world); whereas others promoted Jesus as one proponent of “secret knowledge” as a way of salvation. “No!” says John, most emphatically.

We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. This one who is life itself was revealed to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and proclaim to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us. We proclaim to you what we ourselves have actually seen and heard so that you may have fellowship with us. (1 John 1:1–3 NLT)

What a great mission statement, slogan, motto—call it what you will. This is an amazing summary of the message—based on personal experience and conviction. This summary verse echoes Genesis 1:1, as does John’s Gospel. God is the beginning—and he is the word of life, who was in the beginning with God, and was God. Only as we believe the evidence of God and his character can we proceed—for belief must be based on what we have examined and determined to be true for ourselves.

We know that the Son of God has come, and he has given us understanding so that we can know the true God. And now we live in fellowship with the true God because we live in fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ. He is the only true God, and he is eternal life. Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God’s place in your hearts. (1 John 5:20, 21 NLT)

May this be true for all of us.

Author and theologian Jonathan Gallagher is the former representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church to the United Nations. He facilitates a dynamic Sabbath School discussion available at

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