I am currently going through 1 John with my Beginning Greek class, and it is proving fruitful returning to this delightful little epistle afresh. All translations herein are my own.
The author of the First Epistle of John explicitly states the purpose for writing:
- “and we are writing these things, in order that our joy might be made complete” (1:4)
- “My little children, I am writing these things to you in order that you might not sin. . . .” (2:1)
- “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven to you on account of his name” (2:12)
- “I am writing to you, fathers, because you have known him from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one” (2:13)
- “I wrote to you, children, because you have known the Father. I wrote to you, fathers, because you have known him from the beginning. I wrote to you, young men, because you are strong and the word of God remains in you and you have overcome the evil one” (2:14)
- “I did not write to you because you do not know the truth but because you do know it and because every lie is not from the truth” (2:21)
- “I wrote these things to you concerning those who are deceiving you” (2:26)
- “I wrote these things to you in order that you might know that you have eternal life, to those who believe in the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
In sum, the author is writing to the recipients in order to show them that they do have eternal life and to prevent them from being deceived. In other words, he is writing to show that they are forgiven and that they might not sin, to show that they know the truth that they belong to God. Throughout this epistle, the author gives positive and negative telltale signs as per this agenda. Needless to say, these signs are important in the epistle. Let’s go through 1 John and take note of these signposts (make the jump to the bottom of the post if you would rather see a list form).
And this is the message which we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and darkness is not in him at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him but we are walking in darkness, we are lying and we do not practice the truth; but if we are walking in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
These conditional statements tell us of general truths, truths that hold true at all times. If we say, generally speaking, meaning at all times, that we have fellowship with God but at the same time continuously walk in darkness, we lie. Just as darkness is not in God, His children cannot be in darkness. Those who walk in darkness do not have fellowship with God. The two actions are incompatible due to God’s nature. One’s actions reveal the validity of one’s claims. If we walk in the light, generally speaking at all times, then we do have fellowship with each other, and not only that, but Christ’s blood also cleanses us from every sin. The continuous act of walking in the light proves that one is a child of God, that one has truly been cleansed from every sin, and that one is really in fellowship. The signposts that we see here are negative and positive, respectively. First, whoever walks in darkness is not a child of God. Second, whoever walks in the light is a child of God.
If we say that we do not have sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, so that he might forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)
This set of telltale signs piggyback on the previous ones, only now they are talking about truth in connection with sin instead of darkness and light. We are still dealing with conditional statements that concern general truths. As such, our next signpost shows that if we say we do not have sin, we are not children of God. Conversely, if we confess our sins, we are truly children of God. However, the author adds a third telltale sign: if we say that we have not sinned, still, we are not God’s children. These are general truths. If someone takes up the continuous position that either (a) they do not have a sin or (b) they have not sinned, then they are characteristically not God’s children, because God, who is light, exposes sin in the darkness. Those who are God’s children live exposed in the light, so they do not deny their sins, but, rather, confess them.
Thus far, in 1 John 1, we have a total of five telltale signs, two of which are positive and four negative. To show that they are or are not children of God, the author points them to these tests: (1) those who walk in the light and (2) those who confess their sins are indeed children of God; however, (3) those who walk in darkness, those who say they have no sin, or those who say they have never sinned are not children of God. But these are all general truths. Those who’s lives are characterized by a continuous, ongoing attitude of contempt, that they have not sinned and there is nothing wrong with them, that they have no need for salvation, and they continue to live in the darkness of their ways, these are the ones who are not children of God. It’s not that they forgot to confess a sin that they committed; instead, they refuse to admit that they have made such an offense. It’s not that they stepped into the darkness but jumped back into the light; rather, they stick to the shadows and avoid the light at all times.
And in this we know that we have known him, if we keep his commandments. The one who says that I have known him but does not keep his commandments, he is a liar and the truth is not in this one; but whoever keeps his word, truly the love of God has been made complete in this one, in this we know that we are in him. The one who says, “I remain in him,” he thusly ought to walk just as that one walked. (1 John 2:3-6)
Still dealing with conditional statements about general truths, we find here that children of God keep God’s laws. Generally true at all times, children of God, those who have known God, keep his commandments. Therefore, it follows, the author says, that those who say they have known God but doesn’t keep God’s commandments is a liar. However, the one who does in fact keep God’s commandments proves that he or she is a child of God, that the love of God has been made complete in that one. To know him is to be in him. To be in him means to keep his commandments. These conditional statements do not indicate that it is impossible for a child of God to break the commandments. It should be stated that these conditions only speak to the general heart of the matter, that the children of God generally keep His commandments all the time. Therefore, there are three additional telltale signs here. First, positively, if we keep his commandments, we are God’s children. Second, negatively, if we do not keep his commandments, we are not God’s children. There are in fact three signposts, but the first and the last are repetitive, so I will not restate it.
The one who says, “I am in the light,” but hates his brother is in the darkness even now. The one who loves his brother remains in the light and there is no stumbling block in him. But the one who hates his brother is in darkness and he is walking in darkness and he does not know where he is going, for darkness blinded his eyes. (1 John 2:9-11)
These signposts, though not explicit, are still dealing with conditional general truths. The one who says that he or she is in the light but hates his brother, generally speaking at all times, is actually in the darkness, which is the same as not being a child of God. The one who loves his brother, generally true at all times, is actually in the light, meaning that he or she is a child of God. Returning to the initial point here, the one who hates is in darkness and is walking blindly. As in the previous section, here we have three signposts, but due to the repetitiveness of the epistle, we will make mention of the two broader telltale signs. First, positively, the one who lives a life of love towards his or her fellow child of God proves to be a child of God him or herself. Second, negatively, the one who lives a life of hate towards his fellow child of God is not child of God at all.
Do not love the world nor anything in the world! If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; for every thing in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and worldly pride, is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away and its desire, but the one who does the will of God remains forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
The command instructed at the outset of this section sets the stage for the conditional statement. Since the recipients were instructed not to love anything in the world, it follows, according to the author, that any person who loves the world clearly does not have the Father’s love and is not a child of God. The things of the world are intrinsically opposed to God. The children of God cannot love things that are so opposed to God. Again, it is the continuous act of loving that is being prohibited. Therefore, two telltale signs are being given: (1) positively, the one who does the will of God remains forever as a child of God; but (2), negatively, the one who loves the world is not a child of God.
They went out from us but they were not from us; for if they were from us (but they were not), they would have remained with us; but it happened in order for them to be revealed that they all are not from us. (1 John 2:19)
This signpost is different in that it is not talking about the recipients or hypothetical people. It is talking about actual people. Therefore, what we are dealing with at this point in the epistle is a specific example of an applied telltale sign within the letter. The signpost involved is this: children of God remain with the children of God. Antichrists were among the children of God, but they did not remain, so they demonstrated that they truly were not children of God. The signpost, although it is applied to these antichrists, is still applicable for the recipients. In this case, it is a negative one, for it states that those who do not remain are not children of God.
Who is the liar except the one who denies that Jesus is the Messiah? This one is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Every one who denies the Son neither has the Father, the one who confesses the Son also has the Father. (1 John 2:22-23)
In this instance, a question is asked to set the stage for two more telltale signs. Negatively, the one who denies the Father and the Son or denies only the Son is not a child of God. Positively, whoever confesses the Son also has the Father and is a child of God. Both of these signposts deal with continuous action, and so we are still dealing with conditional elements concerning general truths. It is the ongoing action of either confessing or denying that reveals one’s identity.
You, let what you heard from the beginning remain in you! If what you heard from the beginning remains in you, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. (1 John 2:24)
Another command sets the stage for the next telltale sign. The recipients of the epistle are instructed to let the message that they had heard from the beginning remain in them. It is not a request; it is a command. If they do let it remain, then they, too, will remain as children of God. Positively speaking, this signpost shows that those who have the message dwelling in them are children of God.
If you know that he is righteous, you know that also every one who does righteousness has been born from him. (1 John 2:29)
In this general conditional statement, it is explicitly stated that if one knows that Christ is righteous, then those who practice a lifestyle of righteousness has been born from Christ and are children of God.
The second chapter of 1 John has many telltale signs. Most of them deal with general truths, with lifestyles. Those who, generally speaking, keep God’s commandments, walk as Christ walked, love the fellow children of God, do God’s will, confess the son, and let the message dwell in them are children of God. However, those who, generally speaking, do not keep God’s commandments, hate the fellow children of God, walk in darkness, love the world, or deny the Father and the Son are not children of God. Additionally, those who depart from and do not remain with prove themselves not to be God’s children.
. . . For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know him. (1 John 3:1)
This sentence might be considered a telltale sign, since it points to one’s position in negative terms as not knowing the children of God and not knowing Christ. But it is clear: those who do not know Christ do not know the children of God. Therefore, it is a signpost signaling that those who do know Christ are those who know, remain, and have fellowship with the children of God.
And every one who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as that one is pure. (1 John 3:3)
This sentence might also be considered a telltale sign, because it point’s to one’s position with respect to Christ. Those who place their hope in being like Christ, pure, are those who are in the process of purifying themselves, which means that they are of the light and not of darkness.
Every one who does sin also does lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that that one was revealed, in order that he might take away sin, for there is no sin in him. Every one who remains in him does not sin; every one who sins has neither seen him nor known him. (1 John 3:4-6)
There are two telltale signs here. Those who practice sin also practice lawlessness; the two go hand in hand. Therefore, those who practice sin are not children of God, because in Christ there is no sin. The children of God cannot practice sin, sin is uncharacteristic of Christ and of God and is uncharacteristic of those who have fellowship with them. This sign is not saying that God’s children never sin, but that they do not practice a lifestyle of sinning. However, those who do practice a lifestyle of sin demonstrate that they are not God’s children. Positively speaking, those who do not sin in general are God’s children; negatively, those who sin continuously are not God’s children.
Little children, let no one deceive you! Every one who does righteousness is righteous, just as that one is righteous; every one who does sin is from the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God has been revealed in this, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Every one who has been born from God does not sin, for His nature remains in him, and he is not able to sin, for he has been born from God. The children of God and the children of the devil are evident in this: every one who does not do righteousness is not from God, and every one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:7-10)
This paragraph is rather jam-packed with five telltale signs. First, the one who practices a lifestyle of righteousness is a child of God. Second, the one who practices a lifestyle of sinning is a child of the devil. Third, the child of God is not able to sin continuously. Fourth, the one who does not practice righteousness is not a child of God. And fifth, the one who does not practice love towards his or her brother is not a child of God. The author of the epistle is using synonymous concepts to communicate the same idea. Therefore, there are two telltale sings here for each child. Negatively, the child of God does not live a lifestyle of sin. Instead, positively, he or she lives a lifestyle of righteousness. Conversely, positively, the child of the devil does live a lifestyle of sin and, negatively, does not practice righteousness. Again, these signposts are not declaring that God’s children won’t ever sin, but they are saying that God’s children do not practice such a lifestyle. It must also be said that these signposts are not saying that the devil’s children won’t ever do a righteous deed, but it is focusing on the lifestyle.
And do not be astonished, brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death into life, for we love the brothers; the one who does not love remains in death. Every one who hates his brother is a murder, and you know that every murderer does not have eternal life remaining in him. We have known love in this, that that one laid down his life on our behalf; and we ought to lay down our lives on behalf of our brothers. But whoever has worldly possessions and sees his brother having a need but closes his heart from him, how does the love of God remain in him? Little children, let us not love in word or in tongue but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:13-18)
Love is a critical factor. And what is love? Love is self-sacrifice. Love is compassion. This paragraph uses love as a telltale sign. Positively, those who love are indeed children of God. Those who hate are not children of God. The world hates the children of God, which demonstrates that the world is not from God. Negatively, those who do not love are not children of God. As before, the author is writing about lifestyles. It is a lifestyle of love or a lifestyle of hate that validates one’s identity as a child of God or a child of the devil.
And we will know in this that we are from the truth, and we will persuade our heart before him, whenever our heart condemns us, for God is greater than our heart and he knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God, and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and we do what is pleasing before him. (1 John 3:19-22)
This paragraph arguably contains a telltale sign as well. The heart of the child of God works to condemn him or her. But even when the heart condemns, God is greater. And when the heart does not condemn, the child has confidence before God, receiving whatever he or she asks for. Such children keep God’s commandments and do what is right before him. Therefore, the signposts, both of which are positive, involved are as follows: first, the child of God keeps God’s commandments; and second, the fact that the heart condemns at all demonstrates that one is a child of God. This paragraph concerns lifestyles no less.
And this is his commandment, that we would believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he gave the commandment to us. And the one who keeps his commandments remains in him and he in him; and we know in this that he remains in us, by the Spirit whom he gave to us. (1 John 3:23-24)
Children of God do not simply believe; they believe and love. Belief does not exist by itself. It is accompanied by love. When one both believes and loves, that one remains in Christ and Christ remains in him. The Spirit whom Christ gave testifies to the fact that Christ remains in us. Therefore, there are a few telltale signs here. First, those who believe and love are children of God. Second, those who keep God’s commandments are children of God. And third, those who have the Spirit are children of God. All of these are positive signposts. And all of these still concern lifestyles of believing, loving, keeping, and remaining.
In 1 John 3, continuous action is spoken of: believing and loving; keeping and remaining; doing righteousness; hoping for purity; self purifying; and knowing Christ. These are all the telltale sings of God’s children. Conversely, however, those not loving, keeping or remaining, doing righteousness, or knowing Christ are not God’s children.
You are from God, little children, and you have overcome them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world, for this reason they speak from the world and the world hears them. We are from God, the one who knows God hears us, the one who is not from God does not hear us. We know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error from this. (1 John 4:4-6)
In connection with the antichrists who are already in the world, the author of the epistle declares that the recipients have overcome them. It seems as though the telltale sign here is straightforward: you are children of God, because you have overcome the spirit of error; you have listened to us, and we are from God; and unlike you, the world, who is not from God, did not listen to us. Therefore, there are two signposts. Positively, if you listen to the ones from God, then you are a child of God. Negatively, if you do not listen to the ones from God, then you are not a child of God. Again and again, this act of listening is an ongoing, continuous action–a lifestyle.
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and every one who loves has been born from God and knows God. The one who does not love did not know God, for God is love. The love of God has been revealed in us by this, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son as a propitiation concerning our sins. (1 John 4:7-10)
Love is again mentioned as a telltale sign of one’s identity as a child of God. God’s children love precisely because God is love. Still, ongoing, continuous action for love is in view. Love, again, concerns sacrifice. God demonstrated his love by sacrificing his only Son. God’s children are called to love each other sacrificially. Therefore, positively speaking, those who practice a lifestyle of love are God’s children, but, negatively, those who do not love are not God’s children.
Beloved, if thusly God loved us, then we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love has been made complete in us. In this we know that we remain in him and he in us, for he has given to us out of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. (1 John 4:11-14)
Positively speaking, God’s children, the author says, love each other, and, as a result, God remains in them and his love is perfected in them. In addition, the Spirit is Himself a signpost for God’s children. The presence of the Spirit is a sign that they are remaining in Christ, that they have fellowship with God. Therefore, another positive sign is the continuing presence of the Spirit: those who have the Spirit are children of God.
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him and he in God. And we have known and we have believed the love which God has in us. (1 John 4:15-16)
In this short section, the act of confession is a signpost. Confession in this instance concerns confessing Christ, not sin. Positively speaking, those who confess Christ to be the Son of God are indeed God’s children.
There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out fear, for fear has punishment, but the one who fears has not been perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” but hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, is is not able to love God whom he has not seen. And we have this commandment from him, in order that the one who loves God might also love his brother. (1 John 4:18-21)
Returning to the telltale sign of love, the author of the epistle declares that the one who fears has not been perfected in love. Fear here refers to the fear of punishment. As stated earlier, those who are God’s children are perfected in love. Therefore, those who fear are not God’s children. Furthermore, God’s children love precisely because God first loved them. But love is not for God only, it is for the other children of God too. The two are inseparable. Therefore, negatively speaking, the one who continuously fears punishment is not a child of God, and, positively, the one who continuously loves God and his or her fellow child of God is indeed a child of God him or herself.
This fourth chapter reiterated some of the telltale signs that we have already seen. Love for God and love for the children of God together are both a telltale sign of a child of God. Fear is a telltale sign of one who is not a child of God. The one who confesses Christ as the Son of God is a child of God. The presence of the Spirit is a sign that the individual is a child of God. If one listens to the ones from God, then this person is a child of God. Conversely, if one does not listen to the ones from God, then this person is not a child of God.
Every one who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born from God, and every one who loves the begetter also loves the the one begotten from him. In this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and we keep his commandments. (1 John 5:1-2)
Now the author turns to faith and love again as a telltale sign. The one who believes and loves is a child of God. What does it mean to love the children of God? It means to love all others born from God by loving God and keeping his commandments. Therefore, positively, the one who believes and loves is a child of God. As we have seen time and time again, this action is continuous. It’s a lifestyle of love.
For this is the love of God, that we might keep his commandments, and his commandments are not unbearable. For every one who has been born from God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. But who is the one who overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:3-5)
God’s love for us is not just in sacrifice, it is also in his commandments, which are not unbearable or severe. The telltale sign here, however, is that the child of God overcomes the world with faith. It is an ongoing action, a continuous lifestyle of overcoming the world.
The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself, the one who does not believe in God has made him a liar, for he has not believed in the testimony which God has testified concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12)
Here we see belief without love. Belief in the Son of God is itself a signpost. Positively, the one who believes is a child of God. Negatively, the one who does not believe is not a child of God. Both believing and having here are also continuous action.
We know that every one who has been born from God does not sin, but the one who is born from God keeps him and the evil one cannot even touch him. We know that we are from God and the whole world lies in the evil one. But we know that the Son of God has come and he gave us understanding in order that we might know the true one, and we are in the true one, in His Son, Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 5:18-20)
These last telltale signs repeat what we have already seen. The children of God do not continuously sin. Instead, the children of God continuously keep God.
Chapter five reiterates the fact that when one does not continuously sin, that person is a child of God. In one instance, belief and love are counterparts as a single telltale sign. In another instance, it isolates belief from love, so that belief in the divine testimony is itself a telltale sign that one is a child of God. The child of God also overcomes the world. These actions are continuous, characteristics of a lifestyle.
If you like data, then you will likely love what follows. Here is a list of signposts, sifting through much of the repetition throughout of the epistle by referencing passages rather than verses.
First, note the various dualistic themes: light and darkness (1:5-7); sin and righteousness (1:8-10; 2:3-6, 29; 3:4-6, 7-10, 19-22; 5:1-2, 3-5, 18-20); love and hate (2:9-11, 15-17; 3:7-10, 13-18, 23-24; 4:7-10, 18-21; 5:1-2); and confession and denial (2:22-23; 4:15-16). Second, note the miscellaneous themes: knowing (3:1); hoping (3:3); condemning (3:19-22); believing (3:23-24; 5:1-2, 10-12); hearing (4:4-6); possessing (4:11-14; 5:10-12, 18-20); remaining (2:19, 24); and overcoming (5:3-5). We will break down these themes thusly:
- Light & Darkness
- walking in darkness = not a child of God (1:5-7)
- walking in light = child of God (1:5-7)
- Sin & Righteousness
- saying, “I don’t have sin” = not a child of God (1:8-10)
- confessing sins = child of God (1:8-10)
- saying, “I’ve not sinned” = not a child of God (1:8-10)
- keeping God’s commandments = child of God (2:3-6; 3:19-22; 5:1-2, 3-5)
- not keeping God’s commandments = not a child of God (2:3-6)
- doing righteousness = child of God (2:29; 3:7-10)
- not doing righteousness = not a child of God (3:7-10)
- practicing sin = not a child of God (3:4-6, 7-10)
- not practicing sin = child of God (3:4-6, 7-10; 5:18-20)
- Love & Hate
- loving God’s children = child of God (2:9-11; 3:7-10, 13-18, 23-24; 4:7-10, 11-14, 18-21; 5:1-2)
- not loving God’s children = not a child of God (3:18-18; 4:7-10)
- hating God’s children = not a child of God (2:9-11; 3:13-18; 4:18-21)
- doing the will of God = child of God (2:15-17)
- loving the world = not a child of God (2:15-17)
- loving God = child of God (5:1-2)
- loving the Son = child of God (5:1-2)
- fearing = not a child of God (4:18-21)
- Confession & Denial
- denying the Father or the Son = not a child of God (2:22-23)
- confessing the Son = child of God (2:22-23; 4:15-16)
- knowing God’s children = child of God (3:1)
- hoping in Christ, purity = child of God (3:3)
- having a condemning heart = child of God (3:19-22)
- believing in the Son = child of God (3:23-24; 5:1-2, 10-12)
- hearing God’s children = child of God (4:4-6)
- not hearing God’s children = not a child of God (4:4-6)
- having the Spirit = child of God (4:11-14)
- keeping God = child of God (5:18-20)
- not having the Son = not a child of God (5:10-12)
- having the Son = child of God (5:10-12)
- not remaining = not a child of God (2:19)
- letting what was heard from the beginning remain = child of God (2:24)
- overcoming the world with faith = child of God (5:3-5)
Here are some notable facts:
- there are 35 different signposts
- these 35 signposts occur 55 times, not including repetition within passages
- out of 105 verses in the epistle, there is approximately 1 signpost in every 2 verses on average
- the single most referenced signpost is loving God’s children, which occurs 8 times
- the second most referenced signpost is keeping God’s commandments, which occurs 4 times
- there are 12 different themes
- the theme with the most signposts is sin and righteousness, which has 9
- the theme with the second most signposts is love and hate, which has 8
- the theme that occurs the most is love and hate, which occurs 18 times
- the theme that occurs the second most is sin and righteousness, which occurs 16 times
- there are 20 different positive signposts, which tell who is a child of God, occurring 36 times throughout
- there are 15 different negative signposts, which tell who is not a child of God, occurring 19 times throughout
Clearly, the author of this epistle is concerned with helping his audience determine their relationship with God. It’s difficult to find a verse in this epistle that does not pertain to telltale signs. The primary concern of the author was to show who is and who is not a child of God, but he spent the majority of his time describing who is a child of God. Most notably, God’s children were described most often as those who love God–the Father and the Son–and love each other, but also do righteousness and do not practice sin. This emphasis is not unlike Matt 22:34-40, which quotes Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18, respectively:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind
. . . Love your neighbor as yourself
Indeed, if people love God and love their brothers, they will not practice a lifestyle of sin but prove through action their identity as children of God, which means that they have eternal life.