When Jesus describes the kind of relationship that he wants with us, he tells us, “Come, follow me.” This is what he said to his first group of disciples, and this is still what he tells those of us who would be his disciples today. If we want to have Jesus, then we must follow him wherever he leads us. That is what it means to be a disciple—to follow him, learning from him in his word, enjoying his presence, and obeying what he teaches us along the way.
Over the last 2000 years, Christians have written countless books about discipleship. A few of these books have become enduring classics that many people continue to read, even hundreds of years after they were originally published, but most discipleship books are scarcely noticed at all by the wider Christian community. At this point, don’t we have enough resources on discipleship? Why would I write yet another book on such a basic concept, and why should you read it?
In fact, I wrote this book because there are very few books that teach about Christian discipleship through a close study of the Scriptures themselves. If you pick up a typical book about discipleship, you will usually find the author weaving together a picture of the Christian life with stories, illustrations, quotations from other writers, and a handful of proof-texts from Scripture sprinkled in along the way.
Now, there isn’t anything wrong with that approach. Good books of this type make you feel like you are having a conversation with a very wise, seasoned saint over coffee. In fact, I can point to several books just like this that have been extremely helpful to me in my own Christian journey: for example, the nonfiction books on Christianity by C. S. Lewis are all like this, and I feel like I learn something new about following Jesus every time I reread his writings.
What we need, then, is to balance our intake of general wisdom with a healthy diet of the special wisdom that we find directly in God’s word. The Bible is our only holy, unshakable, trustworthy foundation for knowing God the Father through Jesus Christ, by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul writes that God has hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:3), and that to know Jesus, we must let “the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). One day, we will walk and talk with God face to face, but on this side of glory, we can only know God through his word.
Studying the Bible, then, is not optional for Christians. If we want to enjoy the good portion of knowing Jesus, then we must be like Mary by intentionally carving out the space and time to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach us from his word. Rather than scavenging someone else’s scraps, Jesus invites us personally to come feast at his table.
On the other hand, the commentary books that do engage directly with Scripture are sometimes not very practical. The strength of commentaries is that they describe what is going on in the text by unfolding the meaning of difficult words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. This is extremely valuable, because good commentaries can help us avoid bad interpretations of God’s word so that we are freed up to focus better on what God has actually said.
But, because the main focus of commentaries is to explain the text, it is sometimes difficult to find commentaries that prescribe helpful, clear, solid application. Commentaries are extremely useful as reference works to answer specific questions or to illuminate meaning that we do not recognize on our own, but many commentaries aren’t the kind of books that you or I would typically sit down to read for practical wisdom or guidance in our lives.
The danger from all of this is that we can start to think that studying the Bible and discovering practical wisdom for following Jesus in our daily lives are different activities. At best, separating discipleship from God’s word is a foolish mistake, and at worst, it is Satan’s strategy to lead us astray from God by driving a wedge between us and his word.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The whole reason God spoke to us in the first place was so that we could come to know him as well as knowing “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). “All Scripture,” Paul writes, “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Indeed, all Scripture is profitable, but about nine years ago, I began learning just how powerful one portion of Scripture in particular was for teaching the essentials of Christian discipleship.
Nine years ago, I studied 1 John seriously for the first time.
Discipleship According to John
I told my story of how I fell in love with 1 John yesterday, so I will jump ahead today to the place where I began seeing its unique effectiveness for learning about Christian discipleship. At some point while I was studying 1 John, I began to reflect on what the Apostle John tells us when he describes his purpose behind writing the Letter in 1 John 5:13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.
What’s so interesting about this verse is that John wrote something almost identical toward the end of his book that we call the Gospel of John:
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
1 John is written “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,” but the Gospel of John is written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” Additionally, 1 John is written “that you may know that you have eternal life,” while the Gospel of John is written “that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The best way to understand these two books, then, is that John wrote his Gospel for the purpose of evangelism (to help people who don’t know Christ to begin to know him), but that he then wrote his Letter for the purpose of discipleship (to help people who do know Christ to know him better).
The more I reflected on this, I began to ask, “So what did John do in 1 John for the sake of training disciples?” If someone published a new book on discipleship today, most of us would have a pretty good idea of what we might find inside the book, even if we never opened it. But what would a Holy Spirit-inspired apostle of the Lord Jesus include in his book about discipleship?
As I asked those questions, I began to see that John’s Letter is both simple and wide-reaching. With deceptively easy writing (new Greek students often begin by reading 1 John because the Greek is so simple), John focuses on three main topics: our own sin, the gospel of Jesus, and how we begin to live as obedient disciples as a result of the work of the gospel in our lives. John returns again and again to these same topics throughout the entire Letter, building and developing, returning and reflecting, spiraling closer and closer toward the center of his message, which he waits to reveal until the very last verse.
But even so, John never repeats himself. He says very similar things along the way, but in each section of 1 John, the Apostle he looks at his core curriculum from a fresh angle. In this way, John covers a broad range of topics that every Christian desperately needs, from the newest convert to the eldest saint: Truth, Gospel, Growth, Perseverance, Hope, Righteousness, Discernment, Love, Faith, Prayer, and Eternal Life.
Sometimes, John teaches about deep theological issues, such as the incarnation of Jesus or the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Other times, he asks searchingly practical questions of how we are caring for the most vulnerable in our midst: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17 ESV). Everywhere, he writes warmly, with profound pastoral care and a deep passion for the glory of Jesus Christ, as well as a clear vision of the gospel:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2 ESV)
1 John is simple, but it is complex. The youngest Christian will find this Letter easily digestible, but John has actually provided a feast for veteran believers to return to again and again over the course of our discipleship journeys. I can tell you from my own experience that we will always find some new dish to taste that we had not yet discovered. As Gregory the Great (540-604) wrote, “Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim” (Moralia, §4). Gregory wrote this sentence in his commentary on Job, but it is usually quoted today to describe the Gospel of John—and it is absolutely true of 1 John.
That You May Know: A Primer on Christian Discipleship
This book is an exploration of what God teaches us about following Jesus through one of the writings of his beloved servant John. I cannot offer wildly new ideas or special insights into divine mysteries—and you should probably not trust me if I did! Instead, I can only claim that I have sought to follow the example of the many godly teachers who have gone before me by putting God’s word on center stage, so that we could all gaze upon the glory of Jesus together. It is my prayer that this book will help you to know Jesus better through his word, and not that you would pay any particular attention to the book itself.
This book is also the first in what I hope will be a series of several studies of the Scriptures, which I am calling The Primer Series. I have already begun planning future volumes for this series that, God-willing, will share this vision for seeing and loving Jesus in and through his word.
But for now, let’s open God’s word together to the First Letter of John. May God pour out his Holy Spirit upon us to give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand all that is contained in the gospel of Jesus Christ.