Condensed Notes of Addresses at Lowestoft, 1910, and Further Written Notes
John’s First Epistle
The epistle begins with fellowship and unfolds the sphere of its enjoyment. The object of the gospel is that we might be brought into the apostles’ fellowship. Their fellowship was “with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” The apostles were the first to be in that fellowship, but it is not confined to them. Were it so no one could be in it today, and all the teaching regarding it would be useless. The early believers are said to have continued in the apostles’ fellowship (Acts 2:42). Here we are told with whom that fellowship is. We read of the fellowship of God’s Son in 1 Corinthians 1:9 because it has been brought about by Him, from Him it emanates, also of the fellowship of the Spirit in 2 Corinthians 13:14, because it is enjoyed in His power, but here in 1 John 1:3 it is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. It is a fellowship of life, connected with the propagation of Christianity and the carrying out of divine counsel.
The sphere of this fellowship is in the light, that is, in the presence of the full revelation of God. It is not a question of the manner of our walk, but of the sphere in which we walk. The babes in Christ are there as well as the young men and fathers. There are different degrees in which the light is apprehended by those designated babes, young men, and fathers; but it is the same light that is apprehended, be the measure of the apprehension large or small. We are there in all the value of the blood, without which the light would be intolerable to us.
We will next look at the kind of person who is in this fellowship. Up to this point we learn the sphere where the person walks; from this forward we are told who they are. It is the children of God who are in this fellowship, those born of God (2:29).
The new birth is not peculiar to this dispensation. Abel was born of God, and all along the history of the world God had those in relationship to Himself, but they were never brought to light until Christ came. They came to light then by their reception of Christ. To such He gave the right to take their place as children of God (John 1:12). The basis of it was His death for them on the cross, and consequent thereon opening out a new order of blessing with God in resurrection. To this the Father has called us in His great love, and the Spirit gives us the consciousness that we are children (Rom. 8:16); and all such are in this fellowship.
There are two great distinguishing marks of the children of God in this epistle; one is in chapter 3 and the other in chapter 4. The first is righteousness, “He that does righteousness is born of him.” This is developed in the third chapter. You also get love alluded to there, but righteousness is the subject, just as love is in chapter 4, “He that loves is born of God and knoweth God.”
I judge a person to be righteous or otherwise by his altar; that is, by his approach to God. Does he come to God by the sacrifice of Christ or not? This will let me know if he is righteous or wicked. And I judge the love of a person by his readiness to surrender his life for the children of God. He loves what is of God in the world, because he loves God.
Then we come in chapter 5 to the three witnesses—or witness-bearers—who bear witness to the great fact that God has given to us eternal life in His Son. It is because this gift is ours that we have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. The water and blood came forth from the side of a dead Christ and witness to us of the value of that death: in the first place, as that which has made expiation for our sins, so that they are gone judicially for ever from before God; in the second place, the water witnesses that that death has cleansed us from the defilement of the flesh, for that state has been ended judicially for ever. These are looked at here as witnesses, not agents. They witness to me of the value of His death, which has, on the one hand, made an end of my sins, and on the other, of myself as in the flesh. And the Spirit, come down from Christ glorified, tells me of the power of life in Him risen, and as dwelling in me gives me to know that that life is mine in His power.
Then in chapter 5:20 we have the subject of the whole epistle condensed into one verse. “We know that the Son of God is come.”
The way in which we know this is, we are in the light which He has brought. If we are neither blind nor asleep we know when the sun has risen; and the way in which we know it is we are in the light which it sheds abroad. God having made known Himself, we are in the light of full revelation, and we know that the Son of God is come. He has declared God, and opened our eyes so that we might be able to take in the light of that declaration. He has given us an understanding that we might know Him that is true. There is no need to tell us who that is. God alone is true.
Satan and men get power over their dupes by presenting themselves in a false light. They dare not come out in their true character.
If they did their power would vanish. But God works by the revelation of Himself, for He is true. And we are in Him that is true. We possess His life and nature. We are in Him that is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. He, the Apostle says, is the true God and eternal life. In Jesus I find the true God and eternal life, and I know that everything else is an idol. And now as knowing the Father and the Son, and as possessing the divine life and nature, and as having the Holy Spirit dwelling in us as the power of that life and nature, we can have fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, and thus have full joy.
I desire to add a few words to that which has appeared in the passages of Our Calling on the subject of fellowship, as we have it in the epistles of John. I sought to point out in the address delivered at Lowestoft that the fellowship into which we are brought is “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ,” in the light of the full revelation of God. Although there may be different measures in which that light is apprehended, there is no other sphere of light—darkness holds sway everywhere else. Only those born of God are in this fellowship; such are distinguished by doing righteousness (chap. 3) and loving the brethren (chap. 4). It is in this fellowship eternal life is known and enjoyed, for this fellowship is a fellowship of life.
In the second epistle limitations are placed on fellowship. Those who do not bring the doctrine of the Christ are to be refused. Fellowship is here guarded and circumscribed by the truth; only those bringing and walking in truth are to be received, all others are excluded as being outside Christian fellowship.
In the third (on the contrary) all who bring the truth are to be received. Diotrephes may raise ecclesiastical barriers, refuse those who walk in truth or seek to minister it to others, and cast out of the assembly any who welcome such; but John condemns such conduct, and exhorts us not to imitate what is evil, but what is good.
The danger in one epistle is in reception, in the other in exclusion; the truth is the test in both cases. The Roman governor asked: “What is truth?” Had he been divinely taught he might have seen it personified in the Prisoner to whom the question was addressed, for Christ is the truth. In Him we learn all that God is in the full revelation of Himself; and in Him we learn what man is according to God’s eternal thought. The truth as to God, the truth as to man, the truth as to the Father and the Son, and the relationships in which believers stand with these Divine Persons; the truth as to righteousness, salvation, and eternal life; and the truth as to atonement, on the basis of which these blessings can alone be ours—all is known in the measure in which we know Christ, for He is the truth. The gospel is the word of truth, the Scriptures are the record of it, and the house of God upon earth is the pillar and base of it. The truth judges everything which is contrary to it, and becomes the test for all practical fellowship with one another in the midst of religious corruption; and hence the prominence given to it in these two short epistles.
We have said the second epistle tells us whom we are to exclude. The one who brings not the doctrine of Christ has not God. He has neither part nor lot in “fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ,” so we must not have anything to do with him. He is not in “the light,” where we have fellowship with one another; therefore we do not receive him as a Christian. But more than that, he is a tool of the devil, “a deceiver and an antichrist,” and will corrupt the saints of God, and therefore he is to be an object of abhorrence to all who love Christ.
One would naturally think the rejection of such a teacher would be a very simple matter, and would be unfailingly carried out by all the people of God. But evidently this is not always the case, for John contemplates the fact of a professed saint being on very good terms with such. We naturally shrink from being considered narrow-minded and bigoted; and when we allow such considerations to take possession of us we are apt to drop into indifference as to Christ. To receive such an one as a true believer in the Son of God would be to manifest indifference as to the honour of Christ, and self-confidence in our ability to keep ourselves from defilement when associating with an evil-doer. We read: “He that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds,” and such must be treated by all who desire to be faithful to Christ exactly as the deceiver himself. Therefore the people of God should keep themselves far from those who, while professing their abhorrence of the doctrine which dishonours Christ, leave an open door for such teachers to come in their midst. It is evident to any one who knows anything of the unity of the church of God that it is not enough for me to exclude such a person myself, if I walk in company with those who admit him. The only way in which I can clear myself from his company is to refuse all those who admit him, or who leave an open door for him to come in at. Let them close the door upon all who company with such a person, and thus demonstrate their own fitness for Christian intercourse.
But after this question has been settled, and it is perfectly settled in my mind, never to be opened again, other questions arise with regard to Christian intercourse; questions which may not be so easily settled as this one. I do not doubt the Scripture is plain enough regarding all questions, but we may not be of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, and hence we are puzzled and perplexed about things which he plainly and clearly on the very surface of the Word of God.
In the days of the apostles such a thing as an open rupture among saints would scarcely have entered into any one’s mind. There were those who went out (1 John 2:19), but such were apostates from Christianity, and their going out was the thing that manifested that they had neither part nor lot in Christ. There were always divisions, sects, and parties in the church; but open separation was a thing unknown, as far as we have any light from Scripture, whereas in the present day the slightest disagreement on any subordinate question is enough to divide the saints God all the world over. And once a division of this sort takes place, healing is supposed to be impossible.
The separations which have taken place amongst those professedly gathered in the unity of the body, in the midst of a great baptized profession, are most painful subjects for contemplation.
Unscriptural excommunications, followed by bitterness and persecution by one party against the other, proclaim what spirit it is which actuates those who thus bite and devour each other.
And this among saints, who know the Father and the Son, and who are to love one another as Christ has loved them!
What a testimony to the world! What a denial of the relationships in which believers stand to one another! What a sin against Christ! May we take it to heart! It may not yet be too late to wake up out of the mists and shake ourselves free from this spirit of division. The Lord—our Lord—is coming. How shall we meet Him? Fresh from the green pastures, where we have been tending the lambs and sheep which are so dear to His heart—or, like wolves, found rending the flock?
Do not imagine I am advocating peace and unity at the expense of truth. It is that we may be stimulated to hold fast to the truth at all costs I pen these lines. Separation on questions of fundamental error as to the person or work of Christ is imperative. A separation called for on such matters admits of no compromise; the Word of the Lord calls for it. Having once separated from systems or persons who deliberately tolerate doctrinal evil or sanction moral obliquity, the break is final; we must never return to such associations.
This point being clearly defined, and we have the authority of the Lord for so doing, we need also to be equally clear that the Word does not warrant division on account of every matter in which brethren cannot see eye to eye.
Separations have taken place amongst those once gathered in the unity of the body: the point before me is, are those separations justified by the Word?
We must first be sure that the contention was as to the truth, then we must carefully consider if the matter contended for warranted separation. If after careful and prayerful investigation I now see that the separation was of such a nature that it could not be sanctioned by the Lord, because the doctrine about which wrangling and separation took place was not such as to warrant separation, then my path is simple; I own to the Lord my failure in the matter, seek my brethren from whom I have been estranged, that we may get together before the Lord in the confession of our common failure, and seek grace from Him to walk together “in lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4).
In saying this I have no thought of the amalgamation of parties. I could have nothing to do with anything of the kind, because I refuse to belong to any party. If parties amalgamate I am outside them and am untouched by their coming together. Parties are utterly condemned as of the flesh in Scripture, and no saint enlightened by the Word, and walking with God, will have anything to do with them as such. “The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” Most surely it is; let us therefore not make it a symbol of a system.
I emphatically refuse being connected with any party of Christians on earth. I am a member of the body of Christ, but of no other body in the world. My fellow Christians may view me in certain associations and walking aloof from others, and may designate me as belonging to a certain company of Christians; but for myself I refuse altogether that I belong to a party.
It is my privilege to walk with all the saints of God who are clear in their associations and personal walk. The Word of God determines who they are. It tells me on the one hand from whom to “turn away,” on the other with whom I am to walk.
If an individual comes whom previously I have refused and now see that there was no scriptural warrant for separation, on what ground can I refuse to associate with him, or he with me, if we are both seeking to walk in truth? Of course I am supposing he is personally pure, and does not come from associations which had an evil origin, nor has drifted into such.
Nothing could be more simple if we are willing to be simple about it. The real hindrance is pride of heart, and the determination of each to justify themselves, and compel every one to acknowledge that they only have acted righteously in these matters, whereas when the origin and root is reached it can in many cases be traced to party spirit and prejudice.
If the frequent ignoring of plain statements of Scripture, the pride of heart evinced in clerical assumption, the self-satisfaction manifested in the boasting of leaders, and the sad disregard of divine affection, lately come to light in such an astonishing way, have been used of God to awake any of us to the empty and lifeless ecclesiasticism into which we were drifting, the disillusionment will not have been in vain.
Let us not stifle the desires begotten by the Spirit of God for the healing of every wound that will yield to the holy and righteous grace administered from the exalted Head of the body, but let us apply the balm as we may have opportunity, and let it be done in the meekness and gentleness of Christ, counting upon Him to bless our humble efforts to gather His own to Him who is holy and true.
Let us beware of occupation with parties, and the justification of parties, and from gathering to parties, as well as from the amalgamation of parties; but let us all seek to get back again to the living Head, and, as gathered to Himself, let us occupy ourselves with His interests until He come again to receive us to Himself.