Although they are somewhat less obvious because the individual instances are spread throughout the whole book, we also find John using many groups of seven in his Gospel. The apostle not only gives seven miraculous signs of Jesus’ messiahship and the seven famous “I AM” statements, but in the course of his Gospel he also speaks of seven witnesses, seven ways in which Jesus was one with God, and numerous other groups of seven.
These groups of seven in John’s Gospel and book of Revelation obviously represent an intrinsic aspect of the apostle’s writing and are well-known. But what of the epistles of John? Given the deeply embedded nature of groups of seven in his other writings, should we not expect to find groups of seven in the apostle’s letters also? In fact, we can. Although they are not as well known, John’s epistles contain several groups of seven that are helpful in understanding the key elements in his messages.
Although the overwhelmingly clear themes of love and truth are central to John’s letters, it is interesting that he also employs "heptadic" or seven-fold groups – just as he does in his Gospel and Revelation – that reveal other themes, especially in his first epistle. John not only gives seven reasons why this epistle was written (1 John 1:3, 4; 2:1, 13-17, 21-24, 26; 5:13), but also structures his message around key seven-fold concepts.
The first concept we find is that of the contrast between good and evil. We all tend to notice this contrast in what John writes at the beginning of his epistle regarding spiritual light vs. spiritual darkness (1:5-7), but John specifically points out six other areas in which right and wrong are juxtaposed: love vs. hatred (2:9-11), the way of God vs. the way of the world (2:15-17), truth vs. lies (2:20-27), good works vs. evil works (2:29-3:24), the Spirit of God vs. the spirit of error (4:1-6), real love vs. fake love (4:7-21). These seven contrasts form a running narrative throughout the apostles’ letter – as if he were stressing the spiritual duality we must constantly be aware of in all aspects of our lives.
John also gives us seven ways in which those who are born of God are contrasted with those who are not spiritually reborn (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1-21). These contrasts are, in a very real way, tests that we can apply to ourselves, and they are made yet more helpful because in the course of his letter John offers other contrasts in more specific areas – tests of doctrine (2:18-28, etc.), conduct (2:29-3:24, etc.), discernment (4:1-6, etc.), motivation (4:7-21, etc.), and other aspects of Christian genuineness.
This is not to say that everything John writes in his first epistle is rigidly structured into groups of seven. For example, the apostle also frequently uses of groups of three – three things that are in the world (2:16), three things that bear witness (5:7-8), three things we know (5:18-20), etc. And we can certainly find other situations where John could have included a group of seven things, but does not – as when he speaks of six individuals who were notable liars, for example (1:6, 10; 2:4, 22; 4:20; 5:10).
These exceptions only serve to make the many groups of seven found in 1 John even clearer, however. When we look closely at the groups of seven John does include, we find that they are almost always groups of things that aim to show right vs. wrong in some way. These “sevens” are almost always framed as contrasts and, as such, they offer valuable “tests” that we can apply to ourselves to determine our spiritual genuineness and health.
This, of course, was John’s intent in writing to his original audience, but realizing that John utilized this technique in his letter, looking for his groups of seven, and applying them to ourselves can help us just as much today. John doubtless intended his readers to notice and reflect on many of his sevens; doing so can add considerable depth to our study of his letter. There are a great many reasons why 1 John is of great value to the Christian Church today, and John’s “sevens” give us more good reasons to look at this important epistle even more closely.
* For more information on 1 John and the other General Epistles, download our free eBook, Seven Letters: Lessons from the General Epistles, here.