How to Read 1, 2, 3 John

The Book of 1, 2, 3 John

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

1, 2, 3 John teach about God's love and warn against false teachers. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of these books. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the structure of 1, 2, 3 John, discover what they teach, dive into how they fit into the rest of the Bible, and look at how they apply to your life. Use these questions as a guide as you watch this video.   

Now that you have an overview of 1, 2, 3 John in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages from 1, 2, 3 John. Read 1 John 1:1–10. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about 1 John 1:1–10.   

1 John 1:1-10 (ESV)

The Word of Life

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.4And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

Walking in the Light

5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.6 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.7But if we walk 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.8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: God is light and has no darkness in Him.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about 1 John 1:1–10? (Consider the author, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) God is light and has no darkness in Him. (Interpretation) God is devoid of sin—there is nothing evil about Him. He is good. 

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of 1 John 1:1–10? How does its message connect with the main messages of all of 1, 2, 3 John? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: The fact that God is without sin traces through the entire narrative of Scripture. He cannot have union with us sinners because of His holiness. To remedy our division, He sent His Son to pay for our sins. Now, those who believe in Him experience fellowship with God and the forgiveness of sins. 

Contextualize: What themes does 1 John 1:1–10 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of 1, 2, 3 John? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Old Testament?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: Since God is good, sinless, and holy, I should respond in proper worship. I should not take Him lightly. Instead, I should meditate on who He is, praise Him daily, and honor Him with my life. That means I obey Him—I serve the needy at my church, I give generously, and I tell the truth to my boss. It also means I surrender to Him—I identify and surrender any idols (such as my spouse, job, friends, food, money, etc.) to Him.  

Apply: How does the truth from 1 John 1:1–10 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main messages of 1, 2, 3 John to your life this week?
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 The last step in reading the Bible helps wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the books. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video. 

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about 1, 2, 3 John, how would you explain the main points of these books to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through 1, 2, 3 John this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice.

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.