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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 John 3

Verses 1-3

III.

(2) THE DIVINE BIRTH THE OUTCOME OF GOD’S LOVE (1 John 3:1-3).—The thought of the new birth suddenly fires the Apostle’s mind with reverent amazement, in which he calls on his hearers to join. He then sketches some consequences of the Sonship:—

(a)

Neglect by the world, just as the world knew not Him who made them sons.

(b)

The future glory in the perfected likeness.

(c)

The purifying result of hope.

Sons.—Rather, children. The asserted relationship is no mere empty rhetorical title. It is not only a comparison to point origin, dependence, sympathy, care, union, love; it is a fact. As our spiritual life comes from God, we have but to be conscious of it, and to claim its privileges.

(2 a.) It passes before St. John’s mind how strange it is that the stream of the world’s thought, the tide of the world’s history, should be going on as they had been before Christ came. Of how small account was the old man, at Ephesus, or elsewhere, in the eyes of the wise, the powerful, the popular! Why was this? Because God, manifest in Christ, had been unintelligible to the world as such, or, if intelligible, the cause only of antagonism. As far as the children were like their Father, so far would the elements that made up their character be antagonistic to the elements that make up the character of the world. For, as far as “the world” exists at all in the moral meaning of the word, it is a mixture of qualities and tendencies which may or may not be like each other, but which all agree in being opposed to true righteousness.

(2 b.) We can imagine some one saying in the room where St. John was dictating, or the thought occurring to himself, “If you say we are already sons, what shall we be hereafter?” We cannot say. It is not good for us to know. At any rate, there will be the perfected sonship, the completed likeness, the unquiet and rebellious children conformed to the Father’s character. (Comp. Romans 8:17-18; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Galatians 4:1; Colossians 3:3.)

(1) Of God.—Literally, out of God—a part of His holy nature. (Comp. John 1:12-13; John 3:3; John 3:5-6; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23-24; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 1 Peter 1:23; 2 Peter 1:4.)

(2) For we shall see.—The old philosophical dogma, that if knowledge could be perfect it would necessitate virtue, is true in this sense: the more we see God in this life (provided it is a real sight) the more like Him we must be. When we are able to see Him, by entering on the glorified life hereafter, our likeness will have grown complete, and it will never again be able to be defaced. (Comp. Psalms 17:15; Matthew 5:8; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Revelation 22:4.) A true knowledge must be convincing; when we are permitted to see the actual truth in God Himself, it will be impossible for any corner of the soul to remain unconvinced, unwarmed, unrenewed.

(2 c.) St. John, as usual, turns gently to the practical side of his thought. If we really hold this glorious hope of the future likeness, it cannot help having a correlative force in our present life. Such a hope must be the mother of the determination to be purified here; the resolve to be rid of all pollution in body or soul, and to struggle free from the chains of sins. The word for purifying is applied in the New Testament—

1.

To wisdom (James 3:17);

2.

To vows (Acts 21:24; Acts 21:26; Acts 24:18);

3.

To the Christian walk (2 Corinthians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:22; James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22);

4.

To chastity (2 Corinthians 11:2; 1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Timothy 5:2; Titus 2:5).

Our Lord gives a list of things that defile in Matthew 15:18. St. John probably thought of Matthew 5:8 in thus connecting the future vision with present purity.

Verses 4-10

(3) THE CONSEQUENCE OF THE DIVINE BIRTH ON HUMAN CONDUCT (1 John 3:4-10).—This paragraph is an expansion of the thought of 1 John 2:3, which was the practical conclusion of the meditation on the divine love as seen in the new birth. In thinking of the nature of righteousness, of the new birth, and of purity, the Apostle is led to dwell on their opposite, lawlessness, the synonym and essence of sin. His object being to bring purity and righteousness into relief, and to determine who are the children of God and who of the devil, he pursues the contrast by a series of antitheses, introducing, after his manner, reflections suggested by particular stages of the thought.

1st Contrast: Purity, and the act of sin regarded as lawlessness (abstract).

Reflection: Christ manifested to take away our sins.

2nd Contrast: Abiding in Christ, we sin not; sinning, we have neither seen nor known (practical).

3rd Contrast (in the form of a warning): The righteous are like God; sinners are of the devil (hortatory).

Reflection: Christ manifested to destroy the works of the devil.

4th Contrast: The sons of the devil sin; the sons of God keep the germ from Him, and sin not (explanatory).

5th Contrast: The criterion between the two sonships is doing righteousness and (a new thought in this passage) loving the brother (the test).

(4) Transgresseth also the law.—Rather, doeth lawlessness.

The transgression of the law.—Or, lawlessness. He is not thinking of the law of Moses, but defining and analysing the nature of sin in general: it is acting from caprice instead of on principle, disobeying the conscience, neglecting the will of God, rebelling against His commandments.

(5) And ye know . . .—The Incarnation is here mentioned with the purpose of strengthening the appeal to purity. The very object of Christ’s coming was to take away our sins by atonement, and their power in us by reformation. He is Himself sinless. Those who really rest firm in Him cannot be habitual sinners, nor, on the other hand, can habitual sinners be really in Him.

To take away our sins.—See John 1:29. For the use of the word “take away,” compare John 11:48; John 15:2; John 17:15; John 19:31; John 19:38. The idea of sacrificial substitution was uppermost in 1 John 2:2. Here it is rather that of sanctification; but the other is not excluded. The two are always connected in St. John’s mind. (Comp. 1 John 1:7; 1 John 4:9-11.) The purpose of Christ’s coming was not so much to teach a new doctrine as to produce a new life; the first was the means to the second.

And in him is no sin.—The fact that Christ is perfectly sinless is dwelt on because He is the vital element of the Christian’s being, and if present in him must produce a result like Himself.

(6) Abideth in him.—See 1 John 2:6; 1 John 2:24, and John 15:4. The whole nature must consciously repose in Christ, breathe His spiritual atmosphere, draw all nourishment from Him, have no principle of thought or action apart from Him. This intimate union is regarded as the direct consequence of Christ’s manifestation, and of His sinless character as manifested.

Sinneth not.—See Romans 7:17. Although the Christian does not always do what is best, he does not willingly commit sin; his real self is on the side of God’s law.

Whosoever sinneth.—Adopts the lawless disposition deliberately. In the moment of conscious wilful sin, any former partial sight or knowledge he may have had of Christ becomes a thing of the past, as if it were not, and proves its own inadequacy. Ignatius says, “None who professeth faith sinneth, and none who hath love hateth. They who profess themselves Christians will be manifest by what they do.” (Comp. 1 John 2:19, and Matthew 7:23.) A real saving sight of Christ is when our mind becomes conscious of the convincing truth, beauty, perfection, love, and power of His existence. The corresponding knowledge is when that sight has become experience, the soul having learnt the effect of His strengthening, purifying grace; having proved the happiness of spiritual intercourse with Him; and having meditated continually on the records of the sayings and doings of His earthly manifestation. There may be here a reference to the Gnostics, who said that their “knowledge” was so great that they had no need to work righteousness: grace would be enough, without works.

(7, 8) By the solemn appeal, “My little children,” the practical contrast of 1 John 2:7 is introduced in the form of a warning in 1 John 2:7-8. The words “is of the devil,” in the second branch of the antithesis, show that the words “is righteous, even as he is righteous,” are meant to claim for the true Christian a likeness of nature to Christ. Although there is no allusion to it here, the teaching of the Epistle to the Romans shows that the eternal righteousness of Christ may be an object of faith, even though His name and earthly manifestation be unknown.

(8) Of the devil.—See on John 8:44. Not that the devil has created the sinner, but that the sinner has allowed him to generate his evil nature, until gradually the whole nature may have become evil, and therefore generated by the devil, to the exclusion of any elements of goodness. By making the devil the antithesis to Christ, St. John insists as strongly as it would be possible for him to insist on the moral importance of remembering the existence and kingdom of an allowed power of evil. The work of the Messiah cannot be fully understood without acknowledging this fact of human consciousness.

For the devil sinneth from the beginning.—“For” states the reason why sinners are of the devil. By “from the beginning,” therefore, we understand, not the date of the devil’s existence, or of the creation of the earth and solar system, or of human history, or of the devil’s fall, but the beginning of human sin. As soon as human sin began, then the devil was at work and claiming his parentage.

The Son of God was manifested.—The devil is not honoured by being placed over against the whole Almighty Deity, but is regarded as the special antagonist of the Son. (Compare 1 John 2:5.) In taking away our sins Christ would be destroying the works of the devil, which are every possible variety of sin. The consequences of sin—affliction, death, condemnation—are rather the wholesome discipline of God.

1 John 2:9 repeats, in a more perfect form of contrast to 1 John 2:8, the thought of 1 John 2:7. (Comp. 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:6.) We have seen that the birth of the new nature is not complete till we enter into our rest; so also the freedom from sin is progressive. His seed is the Holy Spirit: that influence proceeding from God, imbued with divine vitality, regenerating, renewing, refreshing, causing the nature of holiness to spring, to grow, to bloom, to bear fruit. The result is the same whether the metaphor is regarded as animal or vegetable. The Christian does not say, “I have the seed of God within me, so I need not mind if I am betrayed into sin.” That would alone be enough to prove that the seed of God is not there. If he is betrayed into sin, he trembles lest the seed of God should not be there. He struggles to free his permanent will from all participation in what was wrong. He claims the help of the Spirit in his struggle; and his sincerity shows that it was a genuine bond fide betrayal, not a pre-conceived moral choice. “Sinneth not,” therefore, looks rather to the Christian’s course as a whole. “He cannot sin,” means that if he is really born of God it is an impossibility for him deliberately to choose evil. If he deliberately chooses evil he is not born of God. “A child of God in this conflict receives indeed wounds daily, but never throws away his arms or makes peace with his deadly foe” (Luther).

1 John 2:10 sums up the matter in a terse distinction: all mankind are either children of God or children of the devil—they who try to do good, and they who deliberately and consciously choose evil. It is not even for an Apostle to judge which man belongs to which class; at any rate, the true Christian can never be a wilful rebel. And here, as the importance of brotherly love is so constantly before his mind, St. John allows the note which he struck in 1 John 2:9 to enter again into the melody of his thoughts. Brotherly love, the most prominent part of Christian righteousness, may well be mentioned in the contrast between sin and holiness, as it is the most comprehensive of all virtues.

Verses 11-18

(4) BROTHERLY LOVE THE NECESSARY FLOWER OF THE DIVINE LOVE IN THE DIVINE BIRTH (1 John 3:11-18).—In 1 John 2:10 St. John showed the necessary connection between righteousness and love; there is no contradiction between the two: the one is necessary to the other. Justice will become sternness without love; love will be weakness without justice. The two thoughts are introduced and connected in both halves of the Epistles. (See 1 John 2:3-11.) Here the duty of love is still more strongly insisted on, as the general subject is the love of God, as in the first half of the Epistle it was the light of God. We have (a) the command or message of Christ; then (b) the contrast of Cain; then (c) the similar conduct of the world (a thought which had occurred before, in 1 John 2:1); then (d) the comfort of the connection between love and life, as contrasted with hatred and death; then (e) the identification of the hater with the murderer, and the impossibility of associating the idea of eternal life with the destroyer of temporal life; then (f) the example of God’s love in the death of the Son, urging us even to the same extremity of self-sacrifice; then, (g) as a minor premise, the thought thrust home, for a practical conclusion, that the smaller self-sacrifice of daily assistance to others is an, essential to the Christian life.

(4 a.) (11) For states the reason why brotherly love was added to righteousness at the end of the last paragraph: because it was the earliest and most prominent feature of Christianity presented to them.

Love one another.—The injunction is perfectly general, without the restrictions of society; wherever Christian love is due, there it must immediately be paid. (Comp. 1 Peter 1:22.)

(4 b.) (12) Not as Cain, who was of that . . .—Rather, Not as Cain was of that . . .; an abrupt conversational form. (Comp. John 6:58.) Cain is introduced as the prototype of envy, jealousy, and the inward hatred which the evil feel at the good.

(4 c.) (13) The conduct of the world to Christians is of a piece with this invariable characteristic of those who are in darkness, exemplified in Cain. (Comp. John 15:18-19; John 17:14; 2 Timothy 3:12.)

Marvel not is equivalent to “Be not dismayed; be of good courage.”

(4 d.) (14) This is a characteristic instance of St. John’s logic. From the terseness and pregnancy of his style, he does not give all the steps of an argument, but frequently turns it upside down, in order more speedily to bring out a forcible spiritual truth. But for this he would have written, “We love the brethren, because we have passed from death unto life; but he that abideth in death loveth not.” But wishing to put these ideas in the form of a direct encouragement, in face of a hating world, he puts the reason as the conclusion, and the conclusion as the reason. This unexpected turn rivets the attention far more than a rigid deduction. Another ground of assurance has been stated in 1 John 2:2 : keeping the behests of Christ, of which (as we have seen) love is the most prominent. “The brothers” means all the members of the human family: the love of Christ which, in 1 John 2:16, we are bidden to imitate, was for the whole world of sinners. (Comp. Matthew 5:44; 1 Corinthians 4:12.)

Passed from death unto life.—This dates from the beginning of the new birth, the dawn of eternal life in the converted heart. And just as the perfect Christian love embraces all other Christian virtues, so not only does actual hatred, but the absence of love, indicate absolute spiritual deadness.

(4 e.) (15) Regarding the absence of love as of one class with the presence of hatred, St. John here puts more prominently forward the active member of the class than the quiescent. The statement is intended as an illustration of the fact that where no love is there can neither be eternal life. The full argument would be “Where love is not, there is hatred; where hatred is, there is murder; where murder is, there can be no eternal life.” (Comp. Matthew 5:21-26.)

(4 f.) (16) Hereby perceive we the love of God.—Rather, Hereby know we the true love; meaning, of course, that perfection of love which is God Himself. Christ, the Word made flesh, is regarded as identical with this love, so only the pronoun is used. The highest proof of love is the sacrifice of that which is most precious: nothing could be more precious than the life of the Word made flesh. (Comp. John 10:11; John 10:15; John 10:17-18; John 13:37-38; John 15:13; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; Ephesians 5:25.)

For us.—Rather, on our behalf. (See Romans 5:8.)

And we ought.—The reason of this consequence is that we are to be like Christ in everything; as our being is orbed in His, so whatever was His spirit will be ours: even His unparallelled act of self-sacrifice must be reproduced in us, at however great a distance. For the good of our fellows we must be even ready to die. (Comp. John 13:34; John 15:12-13; Romans 9:3; Romans 16:3-4.)

(4 g.) But implies a progress from the greater duty to the less; if the less is neglected, far more completely is the command disobeyed.

Good.—Rather, sustenance, or “necessaries of life.”

World is not here used in a bad sense, but merely of such elements of existence as are not spiritual.

The word “see” is strong, and implies calm and attentive contemplation.

The word translated “bowels of compassion” is used in the LXX. (Proverbs 12:10) for “tender mercies.” It is used in the New Testament as we use “heart,” and has nothing to do with bowels. It should be translated “compassion.”

How abideth.—In 1 John 2:15 it was eternal life; here St. John thinks of our love to God as one of the two chief signs and products of eternal life: eternal life bringing into activity its relation to its source.

(18) The words “My little children,” are, as usual, a mark of a sudden access of warmth, tenderness, and earnestness. “Word,” of course, is antithetical to “deed,” “tongue” to “truth.” The construction of the first pair (which is different from that of the second) implies merely the instruments of the love; that of the second implies its whole condition. St. John hints that there is some danger of this conventionality amongst his friends, and earnestly exhorts them to genuineness. He forbids all the traitorous babble of heartless insincerity, and urges that just, active, straightforward, all-embracing affection which was complete in Christ alone. (Comp. Romans 12:9; Ephesians 4:15; James 2:15-17; 1 Peter 1:22; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1.)

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-john-3.html. 1905.