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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
1 John 3



Verses 1-24

Chapter 3


3:1-2 See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God--and such we indeed are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him. Beloved, even as things are we are children of God, and it has not yet been made clear what we shall be. We know that, if it shall be made clear, we shall be like him because we shall see him as he is.

It may well be that the best illumination of this passage is the Scottish Paraphrase of it:

Behold the amazing gift of love

the Father hath bestow'd

On us, the sinful sons of men,

to call us sons of God!

Concealed as yet this honour lies,

by this dark world unknown,

A world that knew not when he came,

even God's eternal Son.

High is the rank we now possess,

but higher we shall rise;

Though what we shall hereafter be

is hid from mortal eyes.

Our souls, we know, when he appears,

shall bear his image bright;

For all his glory, full disclosed,

shall open to our sight.

A hope so great, and so divine,

may trials well endure;

And purge the soul from sense and sin,

as Christ himself is pure.

John begins by demanding that his people should remember their privileges. It is their privilege that they are called the children of God. There is something even in a name. Chrysostom, in a sermon on how to bring up children, advises parents to give their boy some great scriptural name, to teach him repeatedly the story of the original bearer of the name, and so to give him a standard to live up to when he grows to manhood. So the Christian has the privilege of being called the child of God. Just as to belong to a great school, a great regiment, a great church, a great household is an inspiration to fine living, so, even more, to bear the name of the family of God is something to keep a man's feet on the right way and to set him climbing.

But, as John points out, we are not merely called the children of God; we are the children of God.

There is something here which we may well note. It is by the gift of God that a man becomes a child of God. By nature a man is the creature of God, but it is by grace that he becomes the child of God. There are two English words which are closely connected but whose meanings are widely different, paternity and fatherhood. Paternity describes a relationship in which a man is responsible for the physical existence of a child; fatherhood describes an intimate, loving, relationship. In the sense of paternity all men are children of God; but in the sense of fatherhood men are children of God only when he makes his gracious approach to them and they respond.

There are two pictures, one from the Old Testament and one from the New, which aptly and vividly set out this relationship. In the Old Testament there is the covenant idea. Israel is the covenant people of God. That is to say, God on his own initiative had made a special approach to Israel; he was to be uniquely their God, and they were to be uniquely his people. As an integral part of the covenant God gave to Israel his law, and it was on the keeping of that law that the covenant relationship depended.

In the New Testament there is the idea of adoption (Romans 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 1:9; Galatians 3:26-27; Galatians 4:6-7). Here is the idea that by a deliberate act of adoption on the part of God the Christian enters into his family.

While all men are children of God in the sense that they owe their lives to him, they become his children in the intimate and loving sense of the term only by an act of God's initiating grace and the response of their own hearts.

Immediately the question arises: if men have that great honour when they become Christians, why are they so despised by the world? The answer is that they are experiencing only what Jesus Christ has already experienced. When he came into the world, he was not recognized as the Son of God; the world preferred its own ideas and rejected his. The same is bound to happen to any man who chooses to embark on the way of Jesus Christ.


John, then, begins by reminding his people of the privileges of the Christian life. He goes on to set before them what is in many ways a still more tremendous truth, the great fact that this life is only a beginning. Here John observes the only true agnosticism. So great is the future and its glory that he will not even guess at it or try to put it into inevitably inadequate words. But there are certain things he does say about it.

(i) When Christ appears in his glory, we shall be like him. Surely in John's mind there was the saying of the old creation story that man was made in the image and in the likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). That was God's intention; and that was man's destiny. We have only to look into any mirror to see how far man has fallen short of that destiny. But John believes that in Christ a man will finally attain it, and at last bear the image and the likeness of God. It is John's belief that only through the work of Christ in his soul can a man reach the true manhood God meant him to reach.

(ii) When Christ appears, we shall see him and be like him. The goal of all the great souls has been the vision of God. The end of all devotion is to see God. But that vision of God is not for the sake of intellectual satisfaction; it is in order that we may become like him. There is a paradox here. We cannot become like God unless we see him; and we cannot see him unless we are pure in heart, for only the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8). In order to see God, we need the purity which only he can give. We are not to think of this vision of God as something which only the great mystics can enjoy. There is somewhere the story of a poor and simple man who would often go into a cathedral to pray; and he would always pray kneeling before the crucifix. Someone noticed that, though he knelt in the attitude of prayer, his lips never moved and he never seemed to say anything. He asked what he was doing kneeling like that and the man answered: "I look at him; and he looks at me." That is the vision of God in Christ that the simplest soul can have; and he who looks long enough at Jesus Christ must become like him.

One other thing we must note. John is here thinking in terms of the Second Coming of Christ. It may be that we can think in the same terms; or it may be that we cannot think so literally of a coming of Christ in glory. Be that as it may, there will come for every one of us the day when we shall see Christ and behold his glory. Here there is always the veil of sense and time, but the day will come when that veil, too, will be torn in two.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,

And still this throbbing heart,

The rending veil shall thee reveal

All glorious as thou art.

Therein is the Christian hope and the vast possibility of the Christian life.


3:3-8 Anyone who rests this hope on him purifies himself as he is pure. Anyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that he appeared that he might take away our sins and there is no sin in him. Anyone who abides in him does not sin. Anyone who sins has not seen him, and does not know him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He who does sin is of the devil, because the devil is a sinner from the beginning. The purpose for which the Son of God appeared was that he might destroy the works of the devil.

John has just said that the Christian is on the way to seeing God and being like him. There is nothing like a great aim for helping a man to resist temptation. A novelist draws the picture of a young man who always refused to share in the lower pleasures to which his comrades often invited and even urged him. His explanation was that some day something fine was going to come to him, and he must keep himself ready for it. The man who knows that God is at the end of the road will make all life a preparation to meet him.

This passage is directed against the Gnostic false teachers. As we have seen they produced more than one reason to justify sin. They said that the body was evil and that, therefore, there was no harm in sating its lusts, because what happened to it was of no importance. They said that the truly spiritual man was so armoured with the Spirit that he could sin to his heart's content and take no harm from it. They even said that the true Gnostic was under obligation both to scale the heights and to plumb the depths so that he might be truly said to know all things. Behind John's answer there is a kind of analysis of sin.

He begins by insisting that no one is superior to the moral law. No one can say that it is quite safe for him to allow himself certain things, although they may be dangerous for others. As A. E. Brooke puts it: "The test of progress is obedience." Progress does not confer the privilege to sin; the further on a man is the more disciplined a character he will be. John goes on to imply certain basic truths about sin.

(i) He tells us what sin is. It is the deliberate breaking of a law which a man well knows. Sin is to obey oneself rather than to obey God.

(ii) He tells us what sin does. It undoes the work of Christ. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). To sin is to bring back what he came into the world to abolish.

(iii) He tells us why sin is. It comes from the failure to abide in Christ. We need not think that this is a truth only for advanced mystics. It simply means this--so long as we remember the continual presence of Jesus, we will not sin; it is when we forget that presence that we sin.

(iv) He tells us whence sin comes. It comes from the devil; and the devil is he who sins, as it were, on principle. That probably is the meaning of the phrase from the beginning (1 John 3:8). We sin for the pleasure that we think it will bring to us; the devil sins as a matter of principle. The New Testament does not try to explain the devil and his origin; but it is quite convinced--and it is a fact of universal experience that in the world there is a power hostile to God; and to sin is to obey that power instead of God.

(v) He tells us how sin is conquered. It is conquered because Jesus Christ destroyed the works of the devil. The New Testament often dwells on the Christ who faced and conquered the powers of evil (Matthew 12:25-29; Luke 10:18; Colossians 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22; John 12:31). He has broken the power of evil, and by his help that same victory can be ours.


3:9 Anyone who has been born of God does not commit sin, because his seed abides in him; and he cannot be a consistent and deliberate sinner, because he has been born of God.

This verse bristles with difficulties, and yet it is obviously of the first importance to find out what it means.

First, what does John mean by the phrase: "Because his seed abides in him"? There are three possibilities.

(i) Frequently the Bible uses the word seed to mean a man's family and descendants. Abraham and his seed are to keep the covenant of God (Genesis 17:9). God made his promise to Abraham and to his seed for ever (Luke 1:55). The Jews claim to be Abraham's seed (John 8:33; John 8:37). In Galatians 3:1-29 , Paul speaks about Abraham's seed (Galatians 3:16; Galatians 3:29). If we take seed in that sense here, we need to take him as referring to God and then we get very good sense. "Anyone who has been born of God does not sin, because God's family constantly abide in God." God's family live so near to God that they may be said to abide in him. The man who lives like that has a strong defence against sin.

(ii) It is human seed which produces human life, and the child may be said to have his father's seed in him. Now the Christian is reborn through God and, therefore, has God's seed in him. This was an idea with which the people of John's age were very familiar. The Gnostics said that God had sowed seeds into this world and through the action of these seeds the world was being perfected; and they claimed that it was the true Gnostics who had received these seeds. Some Gnostics said that man's body was a material and evil thing; but into some bodies Wisdom secretly sowed seeds and the truly spiritual men have these seeds of God for souls. This was closely connected with the Stoic belief that God was fiery spirit and a man's soul, that which gave him life and reason, was a spark (scintilla) of that divine fire which had come from God to reside in a man's body.

If we take John's words this way, it means that every reborn man has the seed of God in him, and that, therefore, he cannot sin. There is no doubt that John's readers would know this idea.

(iii) There is a much simpler idea. Twice at least in the New Testament the word of God is that which is said to bring rebirth to men. James has it: "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures" (James 1:18). The word of God is like the seed of God which produces new life. Peter has this idea even more clearly, "You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God" (1 Peter 1:23). There the word of God is definitely identified with the imperishable seed of God. If we take it this way, John means that the man who is born of God cannot sin because he has the strength and guidance of the word of God within him. This third way is simplest and, on the whole best. The Christian is preserved from sin by the indwelling power of the word of God.

THE MAN WHO CANNOT SIN (1 John 3:9 continued)

Second, this verse presents us with the problem of relating it with certain other things which John has already said about sin. Let us set the verse down, as it is in the Revised Standard Version:

No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in

him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.

Taken at its face value this means that it is impossible for the man who is born of God to sin. Now John has already said, "if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us"; and "if we say that we have not sinned, we make God a liar"; and he urges us to confess our sins (1 John 1:8-10). He goes on to say, "if we do sin, we have an advocate with the Father in the person of Jesus Christ." On the face of it there is contradiction here. In the one place John is saying that man cannot be anything other than a sinner and that, there is an atonement for his sin. In the other place he is saying equally definitely that the man who is born of God cannot sin. What is the explanation?

(i) John thinks in Jewish categories because he could do no other. We have already seen that he knew and accepted the Jewish picture of the two ages, this present age and the age to come. We have also seen that it was John's belief that, whatever the world was like, Christians by virtue of the work of Christ had already entered into the new age. It was exactly one of the characteristics of the new age that those who lived in it would be free from sin. In Enoch we read: "Then too will wisdom be bestowed on the elect, and they will all live and never again sin, either through heedlessness or through pride" (Enoch 5: 8). If that is true of the new age, it ought to be true of Christians who are living in it. But, in fact, it is still not true because Christians have not even yet escaped from the power of sin. We might then say that in this passage John is setting down the ideal of what should be and in the other two passages he is facing the actuality of what is. We might put it that he knows the ideal and confronts men with it; but also faces the facts and sees the cure in Christ for them.

(ii) That may well be so but there is more to it. In the Greek there is a subtle difference in tenses which makes a very wide difference in meaning. In 1 John 2:1 it is John's injunction that you may not sin. In that verse sin is in the aorist tense which indicates a particular and definite act. So what John is saying is quite clearly that Christians must not commit individual acts of sin; but if they do lapse into sin, they have in Christ an advocate to plead their cause and a sacrifice to atone. On the other hand, in our present passage in both cases sin is in the present tense and indicates habitual action.

What John is saying may be put down in four stages. (a) The ideal is that in the new age sin is gone for ever. (b) Christians must try to make that true and with the help of Christ struggle to avoid individual acts of sin. (c) In fact all men have these lapses and when they do, they must humbly confess them to God, who will always forgive the penitent heart. (d) In spite of that, no Christian can possibly be a deliberate and consistent sinner; no Christian can live a life in which sin is dominant in all his actions.

John is not setting before us a terrifying perfectionism; but he is demanding a life which is ever on the watch against sin, a life in which sin is not the normal accepted way but the abnormal moment of defeat. John is not saying that the man who abides in God cannot sin; but he is saying that the man who abides in God cannot continue to be a deliberate sinner.


3:10-18 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are made plain; anyone who does not do righteousness is not of God, and neither is he who does not love his brother, because the message that we have heard from the beginning is the message that we should love one another, that we should not be like Cain, who was of the Evil One and slew his brother. And why did he slay him? Because his works were evil and his brother's works were just. Do not be surprised, brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brothers. He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer. He does not possess eternal life abiding within him. In this we recognize his love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our life for the brothers. Whoever possesses enough for his livelihood in this world and sees his brother in need and shuts his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? My dear children, do not make love a matter of talking and of the tongue, but love in deed and in truth.

This is a passage with a closely-knit argument and a kind of parenthesis in the middle.

As Westcott has it: "Life reveals the children of God." There is no way of telling what a tree is other than by its fruits, and there is no way of telling what a man is other than by his conduct. John lays it down that any one who does not do righteousness is thereby demonstrated to be not of God. At present we shall omit the parenthesis and go straight on with the argument.

Although John is a mystic, he has a very practical mind; and, therefore, he will not leave righteousness vague and undefined. Someone might say, "Very well, I accept the fact that the only thing which proves that a man belongs to God is the righteousness of his life. But what is righteousness?" John's answer is clear and unequivocal. To be righteous is to love our brother men. That, says John, is a duty about which we should never be in any doubt. And he goes on to adduce various reasons why that commandment is so central and so binding.

(i) It is a duty which has been inculcated into the Christian from the first moment that he entered the Church. The Christian ethic can be summed up in the one word love and from the moment that a man pledges himself to Christ, he pledges himself to make love the mainspring of his life.

(ii) For that very reason the fact that a man loves his brother men is the final proof that he has passed from death to life. As A. E. Brooke puts it: "Life is a chance of learning how to love." Life without love is death. To love is to be in the light; to hate is to remain in the dark. We need no further proof of that than to look at the face of a man who is in love and the face of a man who is full of hate; it will show the glory or the blackness in his heart.

(iii) Further, not to love is to become a murderer. There can be no doubt that John is thinking of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-22). Jesus said that the old law forbade murder but the new law declared that anger and bitterness and contempt were just as serious sins. Whenever there is hatred in the heart a man becomes a potential murderer. To allow hatred to settle in the heart is to break a definite commandment of Jesus. Therefore, the man who loves is a follower of Christ and the man who hates is no follower of his.

(iv) There follows still another step in this closely-knit argument. A man may say, "I admit this obligation of love and I will try to fulfil it; but I do not know what it involves." John's answer (1 John 3:16) is: "If you want to see what this love is, look at Jesus Christ. In his death for men on the Cross it is fully displayed." In other words, the Christian life is the imitation of Christ. "Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 2:5). "He left us an example that we should follow in his steps" (1 Peter 2:21). No man can look at Christ and then say that he does not know what the Christian life is.

(v) John meets one more possible objection. A man may say, "How can I follow in the steps of Christ? He laid down his life upon the Cross. You say I ought to lay down my life for the brothers. But opportunities so dramatic as that do not come into my life. What then?" John's answer is: "True. But when you see your brother in need and you have enough, to give to him of what you have is to follow Christ. To shut your heart and to refuse to give is to show that that love of God which was in Jesus Christ has no place in you." John insists that we can find plenty of opportunities to show forth the love of Christ in the life of the every day. C. H. Dodd writes finely on this passage: "There were occasions in the life of the early church, as there are certainly tragic occasions at the present day, for a quite literal obedience to this precept (i.e., to lay down our life for the brothers). But not all life is tragic; and yet the same principle of conduct must apply all through. Thus it may call for the simple expenditure of money we might have spent upon ourselves, to relieve the need of someone poorer. It is, after all, the same principle of action, though at a lower level of intensity: it is the willingness to surrender that which has value for our own life, to enrich the life of another. If such a minimum response to the law of charity, called for by such an everyday situation, is absent, then it is idle to pretend we are within the family of God, the realm in which love is operative as the principle and the token of eternal life."

Fine words will never take the place of fine deeds; and no amount of talk of Christian love will take the place of a kindly action to a man in need, involving some self-sacrifice, for in that action the principle of the Cross is operative again.


In this passage there is a parenthesis; we return to it now.

The parenthesis is 1 John 3:11 and the conclusion drawn from it is in 1 John 3:12. The Christian must not be like Cain who murdered his brother.

John goes on to ask why Cain murdered his brother; and his answer is that it was because his works were evil and his brother's were good. Then he drops the remark: "Do not be surprised, brothers, if the world hates you."

An evil man will instinctively hate a good man. Righteousness always provokes hostility in the minds of those whose actions are evil. The reason is that the good man is a walking rebuke to the evil man, even if he never speaks a word to him, his life passes a silent judgment. Socrates was the good man par excellence; Alcibiades was brilliant but erratic and often debauched. He used to say to Socrates: "Socrates, I hate you, because every time I meet you you show me what I am."

The Wisdom of Solomon has a grim passage (Wisdom of Solomon 2:10-20). In it the evil man is made to express his attitude to the good man: "Let us lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and he is clean contrary to our doings.... He was made to reprove our thoughts. He is grievous unto us even to behold: for his life is not like other men's, his ways are of another fashion. We are esteemed of him as counterfeits: he abstaineth from our ways as from filthiness." The very sight of the good man made the evil man hate him.

Wherever the Christian is, even though he speak no word, he acts as the conscience of society; and for that very reason the world will often hate him.

In ancient Athens the noble Aristides was unjustly condemned to death; and, when one of the jurymen was asked how he could have cast his vote against such a man, his answer was that he was tired of hearing Aristides called "The Just." The hatred of the world for the Christian is an ever-present phenomenon, and it is due to the fact that the worldly man sees in the Christian the condemnation of himself; he sees in the Christian what he is not and what in his heart of hearts he knows he ought to be; and, because he will not change, he seeks to eliminate the man who reminds him of the lost goodness.

THE ONLY TEST (1 John 3:19-24 a)

3:19-24a By this we know that we are of the truth, and by this we will reassure our heart before him, when our heart condemns us in anything, for God is greater than our hearts and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we can come confidently to God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do the things which are well pleasing to him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and that we should love one another, even as he gave us his commandment. And he who keeps his commandment abides in him and he in him.

Into the human heart there are bound to come doubts. Any man with a sensitive mind and heart must sometimes wonder if he really is a Christian at all. John's test is quite simple and far-reaching. It is love. If we feel love for our fellow-men welling up within our hearts, we can be sure that the heart of Christ is in us. John would have said that a so-called heretic whose heart was overflowing with love and whose life was beautiful with service, was far nearer Christ than someone who was impeccably orthodox, yet cold and remote from the needs of others.

John goes on to say something which, as far as the Greek goes, can mean two things. That feeling of love can reassure us in the presence of God. Our hearts may condemn us but God is greater than our hearts. The question is: what is the meaning of this last phrase?

(i) It could mean: since our hearts condemn us and God is infinitely greater than our hearts, God must condemn us even more. If we take it that way, it leaves us only with the fear of God and with nothing to say but: "God be merciful to me, a sinner." That is a possible translation and no doubt it is true; but it is not what John is saying in this context, for here he is thinking of our confidence in God and not our dread of him.

(ii) The passage must therefore mean this. Our hearts condemn us--that is inevitable. But God is greater than our hearts; he knows all things. Not only does he know our sins; he also knows our love, our longings, the nobility that never fully works itself out, our penitence; and the greatness of his knowledge gives him the sympathy which can understand and forgive.

It is this very knowledge of God which gives us our hope. "Man," as Thomas a Kempis said, "sees the deed, but God knows the intention." Men can judge us only by our actions, but God can judge us by the longings which never became deeds and the dreams which never came true. When Solomon was dedicating the Temple, he spoke of how David had wished to build a house for God and how that privilege had been denied to him. "It was in the heart of David, my father, to build a house for the name of the Lord God of Israel. And the Lord said unto David, my father, 'Whereas it was in your heart to build a house for my name, you did well that it was in your heart'" (1 Kings 8:17-18). The French proverb says, "To know all is to forgive all." God judges us by the deep emotions of the heart; and, if in our heart there is love, then, however feeble and imperfect that love may be, we can with confidence enter into his presence. The perfect knowledge which belongs to God, and to God alone, is not our terror but our hope.

THE INSEPARABLE COMMANDS (1 John 3:19-24 a continued)

John goes on to speak of the two things which are well-pleasing in God's sight, the two commandments on obedience to which our relationship to God depends.

(i) We must believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ. Here we have that use of the word name which is peculiar to the biblical writers. It does not mean simply the name by which a person is called; it means the whole nature and character of that person as far as it is known to us. The Psalmist writes: "Our help is in the name of the Lord" (Psalms 124:8). Clearly that does not mean that our help lies in the fact that God is called Jehovah; it means that our help is in the love and mercy and power which have been revealed to us as the nature and character of God. So, then, to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, means to believe in the nature and character of Jesus Christ. It means to believe that he is the Son of God, that he does stand in relation to God in a way in which no other person in the universe ever stood or ever can stand, that he can perfectly reveal God to men and that he is the Saviour of our souls. To believe in the name of Jesus Christ is to accept him for what he really is.

(ii) We must love one another, even as he gave us his commandment. This commandment is in John 13:34. We must love each other with that same selfless, sacrificial, forgiving love with which Jesus Christ loved us.

When we put these two commandments together, we find the great truth that the Christian life depends on right belief and right conduct combined. We cannot have the one without the other. There can be no such thing as a Christian theology without a Christian ethic; and equally there can be no such thing as a Christian ethic without a Christian theology. Our belief is not real belief unless it issues in action; and our action has neither sanction nor dynamic unless it is based on belief.

We cannot begin the Christian life until we accept Jesus Christ for what he is; and we have not accepted him in any real sense of the term until our attitude to men is the same as his own attitude of love.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 John 3:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Friday, October 30th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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