6 Major Themes in the Johannine Epistles and the Story of God
A few years ago, Zondervan Academic launched a new commentary series to explain and illuminate Scripture in light of the Bible’s grand story: The Story of God Bible Commentary. Today we’re pleased to share the next volume.
Constantine Campbell’s new commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John offers a clear and compelling exposition of the Bible, as well as a guide for everyday readers in how to creatively and faithfully live it out contextually.
This commentary examines John’s teachings with an eye to the church today—the men and women who desire a deeper relationship with God, a stronger foundation for their walk, and a clearer vision for God’s working in the world beyond their immediate circle… (19)
In a few weeks we will showcase the dynamics of Campbell’s work by interacting with a passage. Today we offer you some of his broad insights into the Johannine epistles by briefly exploring six themes he’s identified.
Walk in the Truth
“Truth is a major concern of all three of John’s letters,” Campbell reveals. In 1 John, truth is intricately intertwined with its other themes. For example, “Those who reject the truth are not able to love as God loves, nor are they able to know or love God” (10).
2 and 3 John feature the specific language of “walking in the truth,” which is consistently Jewish: “The Jewish metaphor of ‘walking’ represents one’s life conduct, and ‘walking in the truth’ has to do with faithful obedience to God’s instruction” (210).
John is overjoyed when he sees believers walking in obedience to the truth. So is God.
Love is Central
Though love is a major theme—some would say the greatest, central one—Campbell explains “it is not possible to separate it out from the other themes, especially those of truth and relationship with God” (11).
For instance, John writes in 2 John that God’s grace, mercy and peace “will be with us in truth and love” (v. 3). Likewise, walking in truth through obedience to it is connected with walking in love (v. 6)
John’s kind of love is deeply theological, because God is love. Our model for this love is Jesus. “The Son models God’s love by laying down his life for us…And we are to emulate this sort of love toward one another” (11).
Fellowship with God
The issue of our relationship with God dominates particularly 1 John. There are three aspects of this theme:
- Knowing God is key
- Acknowledging the Son is central
- God lives in us and us in him
In fact, this theme of fellowship defines our life entirely: “It would not be claiming too much to say that, for John, the ultimate goal of believers’ existence is fellowship with God. In him true life is found…Being in him is what it is all about in the end.” (13)
Sin and Forgiveness
Central to belonging to God and being called his children is forgiveness of sins. In fact, one of the reason’s John wrote the first epistle is “so that you will not sin” (2:1), because the two—fellowship and sin—are incompatible.
“Sin belongs to the devil and the world,” Campbell explains, “but God’s children have been taken out of the world” (12). Therefore, we are encouraged to confess our sins, and promised we will receive forgiveness and purification (1:9).
This is made possible because of Jesus, whom John presents as both our propitiation and expiation—which offers “a vital contribution to the New Testament teaching on the forgiveness of sins” (12).
Withhold and Show Hospitality
For John, hospitality is both theological and pastoral. It’s also the outworking of truth and love.
In 2 John the elder appeals to his readers to withhold their hospitality from false teachers. While this may sound unloving, “the motivation behind it is actually love,” because “he doesn’t want his beloved readers to be put at theological risk by their teaching.” Thus, “truth and love are applied to this pastoral situation” (181).
Likewise, 3 John connects truth and love when Gaius is instructed to show hospitality to missionaries. “Gaius’s hospitality is a tangible expression of his love as well as his commitment to the truth” (210).
Imitate the Good
John’s final letter illustrates our final theme through the counterexample of Diotrephes. “Diotrephes represents an attitude that is opposite to the love in the truth that the elder exhorts. Gaius is not to imitate evil but what is good, since those who do good are from God (v. 11)” (210).
This theme of imitation finds its echo in John’s other exhortations to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7) and to “walk in love” (2 John 6). For, as we revealed earlier, “walking” represents one’s conduct, and the goodness of love and light are the content of that conducts.
These letters hold a special place in Campbell’s heart, for they were instrumental in shaping his early discipleship when he became a Christian. It shows! Let him help you make sense of these letters, so you yourself can teach them—and live them.