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Bible Commentaries
1 John 3

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Verse 1

‘Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew him not.

The thought of being begotten by Christ now raises John to adoration in the face of such a glorious truth. See, he says, what kind of love the Father has bestowed on us. He has not only called us children of God, but actually made us so through Christ’s begetting. We truly are His children, begotten of Christ, begotten of God. Such was His love freely bestowed on us. And that is why the world does not acknowledge us or know us, for it also failed to acknowledge and know Him in Christ (John 1:10-11). The next section reveals more of why this is. The world is lawless and therefore rejects those who are true children of God and introduce the law of love.

‘Behold.’ This is an unusual use of ‘behold’ for usually when it is used something visible is to be seen. And yet John might well have felt that there was something visible to look at, the children of God to whom he was writing and those in his own church grouping. ‘Look’, he might be saying, ‘at all the children of God that there are, these doers of righteousness in a sinful world (1 John 2:29). And this is what God has done.’

‘Behold what manner of love.’ For ‘what manner of’ compare Matthew 8:27 where it is asked concerning Jesus, ‘what manner of man is this?’ Or 2 Peter 3:11 where the question is, ‘what manner of persons you ought to be.’ Thus it contains the idea of quality, of superiority. Who has known love like this in its greatness and its splendour? Who else could ever have done such a thing? This is the first direct reference in the letter to the Father’s love for us (but see 1 John 2:15), although what has gone before has revealed His love. John is now moving on to expound on God’s love.

‘The Father has bestowed on us.’ Note first that it is the love of the Father. He Who is over all, the great Giver, Who gives rain to the just and the unjust, has bestowed on us who belong to Him His love. It is a wonderful gift, yet not merited, not earned, but freely bestowed as from a great King to His subjects, and it is selective, it is bestowed only on those who believe on Him, who look to Him for salvation, who become His true spiritually-born children.

And note secondly that this great love of the Father is bestowed on us. It is ours, not through our having earned it, not through our having deserved it by any means, but because in His gracious love He has bestowed it as a gift. And because of it we do not love the world (1 John 2:15).

‘That we should be called children of God; and such we are.’ There are two points here, that we are called children of God, and that we really are children of God. The calling of us as children is the act of naming. It is a public demonstration of God’s favour before all beings. The world may not notice but the angels look on at the naming ceremony and wonder. These puny mortals have become the Father’s children.

But even more wonderful is that it is actually true. ‘And such we are.’ The Father has begotten us to Himself. He has imparted His seed (1 John 3:9), He has given us new life, He has planned for us a glorious future with Him.

John never speaks of us as sons (huios) of God. That term is reserved for Jesus. He alone is the unique Son. He alone is of the same essence. But through His working within us we become His children, and in a secondary sense ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). It alters our attitudes, it alters our aims, it delivers us from the world because we see everything differently (1 John 2:15-16; 2 Peter 1:4). It makes us seek after righteousness, for that has become our nature.

‘For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew Him not.’ But the world is oblivious of our privilege. It does not know. And it does not want to know. It deliberately closes its eyes and heart to God’s children. And why? Because it rejects all that is from God. It turns its eyes from such things. It knows Him not because it rejects His revelation of Himself in creation and in conscience (Romans 1:18-25; Romans 2:14-16). And most of all because it does not acknowledge the One He sent (John 1:9-11). It is blind and in darkness, and yet at the same time giving the impression that it wants to find Him. But it wants Him on its own terms, as One Who is subject to its own opinions and its own ideas. It does not want light, it does not want to have done with sin. That is why it would welcome the false teachers.

But those who do receive Him are blessed indeed. They are begotten of God (John 1:12-13). They become His true children, born from above by the Spirit of God. But the remainder reject the light. They do not want it. And they continue not to want it.

Verses 2-3

‘Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we will be like him, for we will see him even as he is. And every one who has this hope set on him (or ‘in him’) purifies himself, even as he is pure.’

‘Beloved.’ Possibly opening a subsection, but to also be read as a continuation. We split the letter for convenience, but each part runs into the next. Such expressions continue to reveal the love and concern in the Apostle’s heart.

Both the present and the future is glorious for His true children, those who have come to Him through Christ. Now they already are the true children of God. That is glorious indeed. They are His own. Let them rejoice in that and consider it well. But an even more glorious future awaits. For what they will be has not yet been fully revealed, indeed is so glorious that it cannot be known until it is revealed. For it is so glorious that we can only know it when He is openly revealed in all His glory. Then we will know and will be made like Him, for we will see Him as He is.

‘Now we are the children of God.’ Walking in a world in darkness we have light, we are children of light (John 12:36; Luke 16:8). Walking in a spiritually dead world (Ephesians 2:1) we have life, eternal life (1 John 5:12-13; John 10:28). Walking in a godless world we have God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ Who watch over us.

‘It is not yet made manifest what we shall be.’ What we shall be in the future is not yet clearly revealed. It is beyond our most glorious expectation. It is to be made like Him, and until we know fully what He is like we cannot even begin to appreciate it. Now we see dimly as in a distorted mirror, but then we will see Him face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). Then it will all become clear to us.

‘We know that, if he shall be manifested.’ The ‘if’ is a reminder that John’s hope was not that he might die but that he might be alive to enjoy the glorious transformation at the coming of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:52-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:17). But he was well aware that he might die first (John 21:23). The manifestation of Christ will take place at the end. Then will the fullness of His glory be revealed, to the joy of His own and the disconsolation and tragedy of the world (Mark 13:26; Matthew 16:27; Revelation 1:7; Revelation 19:11-16).

‘We will be like him, for we will see him even as he is.’ It is so wonderful that we can hardly believe it. We will be like Him as He will be then. No pale imitation or copy here. We will be transformed, both those who are alive at His coming, and those who are dead in Christ, and we will be made like Him, holy and without blemish before Him in love (Ephesians 1:4), ‘conformed to the image of His Son’ (Romans 8:29).

‘For (or ‘because’) we will see him even as he is.’ We will see the fullness of His glory. The ‘for’ or ‘because’ may simply introduce the glorious pattern of what we shall be, or it may even be suggesting that seeing Him as He is will contribute to our being made like Him. The light of His glory will fully awaken the glory that He has implanted within us in ‘eternal life’. The seed will sprout, the flower will come to full bloom. Whichever is true the effect will be the same, and it will be all of God.

‘And every one who has this hope in (set on) him purifies himself, even as he is pure.’ Such a vision of glory can only have one effect on us now. Once we take it into our hearts it can only have this effect, a determined longing to achieve it as soon as possible, to be Christ-like now, to be pure as He is. And if that is our hope it must also be our aim. Every one who has this hope sets diligently about making themselves pure, through the word, through prayer, through meditation, through exhortation, through hearing the word, through godly living, through continual submission to God, through yielding their lives and bodies for Him to live through them, not because they hope thereby to earn it, but because it is already their destiny and they want to enjoy it to the full. They commence the process of bringing about His purpose for them. It is inevitable.

It is true that we commence from lowly beginnings. Once we are ‘born from above’ we see the glory of Christ only dimly. We are babes. We are little aware of the truth about ourselves. But we begin the journey to Christlikeness, to becoming what God has purposed for us as God works in us to will and to do of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). And so as we grow we become more and more aware, and are transformed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18) and thus we become more and more like Him until that day that we see Him as He is and all is then completed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, and we are made like Him. Such a gift has never been bestowed before.

But what of those whose growth is stunted, who never grow up, who are still gripped by the world, who reveal little evidence that they are His children? The answer is that if they are fully like that they have no life within them, they are not God’s workmanship, they can have no assurance that they are His. But in the final analysis we are not judges of what a man is, we cannot see the workings of his heart, and it is not therefore for us to pass the final judgment. There is perhaps a work which is taking place which we cannot see. God may have a purpose that we cannot know. It is between that man’s heart and God. But let him beware lest the ruin of his house be great.

One way in which we discover His purity is, of course, through reading the Gospels. As we read and reread them, so the purity and moral glory of Jesus Christ will implant itself in our hearts, and we will then seek to fulfil it in our lives. We become what we read, for good or for bad.

‘Purifies.’ The verb is a rare one in the New Testament and is used of ceremonial purification (John 11:55 and in Acts), but it is used in James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22 of moral purification as here. It seems to suggest that just as men ceremonially purified themselves for participation in ceremonies such as Passover, so Christians, in readiness for appearing before their Lord, will morally and spiritually purify themselves in readiness for that day.

Some see, ‘we shall be like Him for we shall see Him He is’ as referring to God. The idea being that for the first time we will be able to look on God as He really is. And then all that is impure will shrivel before Him. The thought is certainly true. But the context is the manifestation of Christ in His glory, and John surely has in mind the glimpse of that glory that he had seen at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-8). He knows exactly what an effect that can have.

Verses 2-6

God’s People Contrasted with The Lawless World (1 John 3:2-6 ).

Following on his declaration that God has begotten His true people through Christ so that they are His children (tekna - John only uses ‘son’ of Christ), John now calls them to Godlikeness. They are to be so in the light of the glorious thing that God will do in them in making them like Christ and like Himself. For to sin is to be lawless, and sin is no part of God, it is against all that He is. Thus it is impossible to dwell in Him and be ‘a sinning one’. It is impossible to be His child and follow the world. None must be deceived. Those who deliberately continue in sin neither see Him (Who is the Light) nor know Him.

Verses 4-6

‘Every one who practises sin practises also lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness, and you know that he was manifested to take away sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abides in him does not sin. Whoever goes on sinning has not seen him, nor knows him.’

To continue sinning without regard, says John, is to be lawless. It is to reject the will of God, and to refuse to walk in His ways. It is to reject His authority. To go on sinning without regard to God’s commandments (whether old or new) is lawlessness. For sin is lawlessness. And those who walk in that way are rejecting God, however religious they may be. And the one who has received such a gift as has been described cannot be like that. It is impossible.

Those who believe that He was manifested, openly revealed through His life and teaching and subjected to His self-humiliation, in order to get rid of sin and lawlessness, and to take them away (John 1:29) through His sacrifice on the cross, and that He was and is Himself sinless, can surely not themselves cling to sin? It must surely be abhorrent to them, as it is abhorrent to Him. Thus those who claim to know Him and to remain with Him, to dwell with Him, will if it is true not practise sin, they will not ‘go on sinning’ without regard, and those who do continue ‘going on sinning’ with little concern simply reveal that they have not seen Him nor known Him. For the effect of ‘seeing’ Him is to want to be like Him, and the effect of ‘knowing’ Him is to be aware that He is light, and that sin cannot dwell in His presence, and that therefore all darkness must be done away.

John was not self-deceived. He was well aware that he and his fellow-disciples had sinned often while they travelled with Jesus during His earthly manifestation of Himself, and equally often had had to be rebuked, but he also knew well that it was not because they were careless about sin. They wanted not to sin but were hindered both by their own weakness and by ignorance. The same had continued to a lesser extent after the resurrection (Galatians 2:11-13; 1 Timothy 1:15). They had not suddenly become totally sinless. But the point is that they had wanted not to sin (compare Romans 6:12-14; Romans 7:14-25), and when they discovered that they had, they had been ashamed of their sin, and they had sought forgiveness. They had wanted to be done with sin. (Compare 1 John 1:7 to 1 John 2:2). It is another thing totally to practise sin without regard, or as a religious statement as a result of wrong belief.

These words conform quite clearly with Jesus own teaching. ‘Why do you call Me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I say?’ (Luke 6:46; Matthew 7:21-22). Such people deliberately do not seek to do the will of God, and the end of such is the ruin of the house that they have built, the ruin of their lives (Luke 6:49), and they suffer rejection from the Kingly Rule of God because they do not want His rule (Matthew 7:21-23). It is clear that Jesus did not make a differentiation between a superior and an inferior kind of Christian, one who abides and one who does not abide. It is one thing to struggle against sin and fail, it is another not to be concerned about sin. The latter is to reject the will of God.

Some have tried to argue that the present tense cannot have this meaning unless qualified in some way. But that is not so. The present tense can mean precisely this, and as with much language its meaning must be determined by its whole context.

‘In Him is no sin.’ The theme of Jesus’ sinlessness appears in John 8:46, where Jesus asked his adversaries, “Which of you is able to convict me of sin?”, a question to which his adversaries gave no answer. The same theme of the sinlessness of Jesus is found in, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22 and it is directly affirmed by the author’s words here. He was the perfect Lamb of God. There was no blemish in Him.

We must remember that one reason for this contrast between those who go on sinning and those who do not is the false teaching of their opponents. It seems that some of them taught that sin was not important, it was simply a manifestation of the flesh, and they believed the flesh was not important. One day the soul would discard the flesh. Thus the flesh could do what it liked. It was thus not really sin at all. So they could go on ‘sinning’ as much as they liked. (Others, though not involved here, sought to deal with the flesh by punishing it, by asceticism). What mattered was to purify the soul by obtaining esoteric knowledge. Some even taught, ‘let us continue in sin that grace may abound’ (Romans 6:1; Romans 6:15). No, says John, those who practise sin and go on sinning without regard are not of God, and are in direct contrast with those who recognise that sin is important, and though weak and failing (1 John 1:8-10), have done away with sin in Christ ( 1Jn 1:7 ; 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:1-2) and seek to do away with sin in their lives.

Show me a man who says, ‘It does not matter whether I sin or not’ and I will show you a man who has not received God’s life within him.

Verses 7-8

The Way That Men Walk Reveals Whose Children They Are (1 John 3:8-10 ).

‘Little children, let no man lead you astray. He who practises righteousness (carries righteousness into practise) is righteous, even as he is righteous, he who practises sin (deliberately carries sin into practise) is of the devil, for the devil sins from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.’

John wants to make sure that no one leads them astray and deceives them about the truth. Each man, says John, has one of two basic aims, either to carry righteousness into practise in every aspect of their lives, that is, by seeking to live as God has revealed in order to do His will, (including obedience to His Instruction or Law in the Scriptures), or to go on practising sin and thus demonstrating that they are careless about the will of God. Men are for God or against Him. The one puts righteousness into practise because he is seeking to please and be like the Righteous One, because there is a righteousness implanted within him. Such people are aiming to be like Him, because they are His. The other is of the Devil. Such people are lawless, just like the Devil has been, right from the beginning. They do not want God’s laws or seek His will. ‘From the beginning’ is probably a reference to Genesis 3-4. They set themselves against the will of God, just as he did.

Paul put it quite clearly. ‘I as I am in myself with the mind serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin’ (Romans 7:25). The one was his choice, his option, his desire, his aim. The other his weakness, his curse, that from which he longed to be delivered.

‘To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the Devil.’ Indeed this was why Jesus came into the world as the light of the world, so that what the Devil had achieved might be destroyed, so that what he had done might be nullified. Rebellion and lawlessness are the Devil’s work. It was the Devil who first led man to rebel against God, and who stirred up Cain to kill Abel, and he has been doing it ever since. Jesus came to thwart him and to bring man back under the Kingly Rule of God. That was the purpose of His coming.

‘The works of the Devil.’ The closest parallel to this in John is in John 8:41, where Jesus tells those who were seeking to kill him, ‘You are doing the deeds of your father,’ and again in John 8:44, ‘You are of your father the Devil.’ Those great ‘lawkeepers’ were demonstrating their lawlessness, and thus that they had chosen to follow the Devil, to be ‘children of the Devil’, behaving like him. Theirs was a set attitude of mind. All who choose the way of sin, says John, are like them.

Verse 9

‘Whoever is begotten of God does no sin, because his seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he is begotten of God.’

For the plain fact is that if a man has been begotten of God, God’s seed is within him. Begetting involves the planting of seed. And he who has been planted with God’s seed has been made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The divine light and life is planted within, they are children of light (John 12:36; Ephesians 5:8). Thus there is that within them which militates against sin, and makes them abhor the thought of it. Such a person does not want to be a sinner. He cannot go on carelessly sinning, because he is begotten of God and has become a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is against what he now is. Sin has become something that is contrary to what he is as a new man. Something new within him begins to say ‘no’ to sin.

‘His seed continues (abides) in Him.’ Peter describes God’s seed as incorruptible and lifegiving, and as related to His word, saying of Christians that they are, ‘begotten again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides for ever’ (1 Peter 1:23 compare James 1:18). For the seed is sown through His word of power and comes forth to do His will (Isaiah 55:11), and achieves His will and continues for ever. Nothing can prevent its progress and the completeness of its success. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit (John 3:6 compare John 1:12-13). Thus the seed is the result of the work of the Spirit through His word. It is a principle of divine life planted within by God.

In the same way Jesus told the parable of the sower. The seed was sown. In some cases the seed was lost, it did not abide. But in the case of the good seed it continued, it flourished, it produced a harvest, in some thirtyfold, in some sixtyfold, and in some a hundredfold. Not all the good seed flourished equally, but all produced a harvest. For the good seed grows in a way that is beyond man’s understanding and brings about God’s will (Mark 4:27).

The ancient mind did not separate man’s seed from wheat’s seed as strictly as we might. All seed was seed. Thus the further jump to God placing His life-producing seed within man was not difficult.

Verse 10

‘In this the children of God are clearly revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God, nor he who loves not his brother.’

So the children of God are clearly revealed. They are revealed by the fact that they love God and obey His teachings, that they are those who love their brothers who are true in the faith. This does not make them children of God, it results from the fact that they are. But those who do not seek to obey God’s will, who are not ‘righteous’, and who do not love those who are true in the faith, simply reveal themselves as what they are, the children of the Devil (that is, those who behave like the Devil in his refusal to listen to God).

It should be noted that the level of righteousness might differ from babyhood to maturity. For the babe in Christ must learn what righteousness is. But the aim of each will now be the same. To please God and be done with sin.

It will be noted that there is no suggestion of being ‘begotten by the Devil’. The Devil works by deceit and treachery, not by begetting. He is an intruder. The contrast with being begotten or born of God is being begotten or born of human flesh. When men are taken by him and ensnared by him it is a work of outrage. It is not the natural order of things. But nevertheless it is their free choice. They too respond because of what they are. They have by free choice taken up their stand against the will of God.

‘Nor he who loves not his brother.’ This seeming appendage now introduces a whole section where the main emphasis is on love, both God’s love and love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.

Verses 11-12

‘For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, not as Cain was of the evil one, and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because his works were evil, and his brother's righteous.’

‘For this is the message which you heard from the beginning.’ Compare 1 John 1:5. Here the reference to ‘the beginning’ is possibly to the beginning of their Christian lives, for the message is to love one another. Compare 1 John 2:24. Alternatively the thought may be that ‘the beginning’ that they heard from was Genesis 2-4 (compare 1 John 3:8). For relationships between brothers have been there since the beginning of mankind. The message that God is light is now being followed by the message that God is holy love, but it is love that is compatible with that light.

John begins the section by concentrating on the importance of Christians loving fellow-Christians, those true to the essentials of the faith. He points out that it has been true from the beginning, even from the time of Adam. For there were two brothers (Genesis 4:0). One was righteous. He sought to be faithful to the will of God. The other was rebellious. He did not ‘do well’. He did not seek the will of God. And so, instead of repenting, rebellious Cain slew righteous Abel. He revealed himself as of the Evil One. He revealed himself for what he was, a rebel against God, deceived and influenced by Satan (but not a worshipper of Satan. His descendants probably worshipped God as El). And it was revealed in his failure to love his brother.

And why did he not love his brother? Because his own deeds were sinful and his brother’s righteous. Thus he became inflamed against his brother and killed him.

In both Jewish and early Christian writings Cain appears as a type of those who refuse to obey God and who refuse to love their brothers. The Testament of Benjamin (John 7:5), for example, looks forward to the punishment of those who “are like Cain in the envy and hatred of brothers.” Philo expanded on the whole theme. Jude speaks of ‘the way of Cain’ (Jude 1:11). And so on.

Verses 11-15

The Essential Nature of Christian Love As A Test Of Faithfulness to God (1 John 3:11-15 ).

In all this we must keep in mind that the emphasis is on loving our brothers who are true to the Gospel, those who walk in the light. As we have seen earlier, whether men love those who are true to the Gospel reveals their own attitude to the Gospel. They love those who are of the truth because they love the truth. The same is true here. One final test of a Christian is love for those who are true to God, and love for the truth itself, resulting from walking in the light.

Verses 11-24

The Centrality of Christian Love (1 John 3:11 to 1 John 4:21 ).

The reference to loving one’s brother, deliberately added almost as an appendage in 1 John 3:10 in order to introduce the next section, now leads on to that section where love is pre-eminent. Previously any emphasis has been on God’s love for His own (1 John 2:5; 1 John 2:15; 1 John 3:1) although love of fellow-Christians has not been totally ignored (1 John 2:8-11), but from now on the thought becomes central. The emphasis has been on the fact that God is pure, unalloyed light (1 John 1:5), and His love must therefore be seen as coming from within that sphere of light, but now he tells us that from the God Who is light issues forth His holy love, for He is not only light but love (1 John 4:8). God, says John, is holy love, love which is also pure, righteous and true, and so we who live in the light should love one another, for if we are His it will be part of what we are.

Verses 13-15

‘Marvel not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love dwells in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’

Cain represented the world in its rebellion against God. So we should not be surprised, if we are true Christians and seek the will of God, that the world hates us, or is against us. For the world rebels against the will of God. And yet it does not like to be reminded of the fact. It wants to be told that it is fine, and those who dwell on earth want to be told that there is nothing wrong with the way that they as men live and the way that they behave. So if any dare to do otherwise they will find themselves hated. If they speak out they will be vilified. The world becomes inflamed against them.

‘We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.’ This is the crucial factor. Whom we love depicts what we are. Those who love the brothers who are true to the faith (in contrast to those who love the world - 1 John 2:15) reveal that they too are true to the faith, and thus that they have passed from death to life. They have eternal life. They are citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3:20). They have ‘crossed over’ from death to life (compare John 5:24).

‘He who does not love dwells in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.’ On the other hand those who do not so love dwell in death. They have not passed from death to life. They are dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 1:1). They are dead while they live (1 Timothy 5:6). To live is to have been given new life by God and to walk in God’s way and will, according to the highest good. To be dead is to be living according to the course of the world, to live meaninglessly (1 Timothy 5:6). Their failure to love those who declare the truth reveals them for what they are, those who reject the truth, those who reject the will of God. And their attitude towards them makes them the equivalent of murderers. Here John has the words of Jesus in mind whereby one who hates is a murderer (Matthew 5:21-22). We often find in John such assumptions of the recognised Christian tradition as expressed in the Gospels.

‘Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.’ That is, is like Cain, rebelling against God’s ways. But hate here is not a consuming hatred, (although it can become that), it is to have an aversion, in this case to the truth, and therefore to those who hold the truth.

And the result of this is that they cannot have eternal life dwelling in them, for they have within them the seed of murder, they are murderers at heart. And the one who is so ready to continue in such a thought reveals by that fact that he sees and walks contrary to the will of God and is therefore lost. (This refers to the set attitude of mind and not the instant thought. Things can happen that make even the best of us sometimes feel like ‘murdering’ someone).

Verse 16

‘By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.’

He now draws attention to what that love must be like. It is a love known through experience (‘we know’), for love is what Jesus showed in His life and practised, and through which we have benefited. Jesus, he points out, gave us an example of it, by laying down His life for us. He did the opposite to Cain. Instead of taking life He gave His life. It is therefore sacrificial love. It is an all-giving love. It is practical love. It is love that is full of consideration for others. Indeed if we so truly love we will be ready to lay down our own lives for the brethren, and especially for those who bring us the truth.

But the thought goes deeper than that, for here John is linking love for the brethren with the love that brought Jesus to the cross. This is Christian love, love linked with the cross, love that is unlike any known before, love that gave itself on the cross to bear men’s sins, love that takes part in Christ’s sacrifice of Himself and lives it out (Galatians 2:20), and thus it is love that is dead to sin and reveals true Christian faith (compare 1 John 4:9-10; John 10:15-18).

Verses 16-24

Exhortation That Our Christian Love Should be Practical (1 John 3:16-24 ).

As throughout John is now concerned that those he speaks to should examine their hearts to ensure that they really are true Christians. He has been speaking of faith, but now he comes down to practicalities. And his word is that those who are truly Christ’s will reveal it practically in the way that they show love to their fellow-Christians. Indeed his concern is lest they be making a profession of being Christians and yet be revealing themselves in their lives to be a sham.

Verse 17

‘But whoever has the world's goods, and observes his brother in need, and shuts up his compassion from him, how does the love of God abide in him?’

Yes, says one glibly. I am ready to lay down my life for the brethren, I am ready to take up the cross. Good, says John. But what about a brother in need? How do you behave towards him? If you have this world’s goods, and observe your brother in need, what do you do? Do you pass by on the other side? Do you have a closer look and do nothing? Or do you actually go up to him and help him in his need? If you do not do the last, if you stem the compassion that must surely spring up within you, without doing anything, and close your heart, how can you say that God’s love dwells in you? If you do not help him you are showing that His love does not dwell in you. For, if you have God’s love dwelling in you, you could not possibly behave in such a way to one beloved of God. How we behave towards His people demonstrates how we feel towards God.

‘Has the world’s goods.’ The word for goods is bios, usually translated ‘life’, and is so in 1 John 2:16 where loving the world is in mind. They are the means of life. Note that they are the world’s goods. The person who withholds such goods demonstrates that he loves the world more than he loves the needy brother. He deprives him, as it were, of the means of life because of his own love of possessions, because of his love for the world. How can one who loves the world like that, asks John, claim to have God’s love within him?

We note that all this relates to love between those who claim to be fellow-Christians. This is not because John is not concerned about the world outside, but because of the importance of love between Christian brothers. It is a vital test of true Christian faith. He no doubt recognised that those who fail to love their fellow-Christians will certainly not be concerned about the world outside. But that is outside his purview here. His concern here is actually with the subject of the action, not the object, with those who claim to be Christians. He is not talking about general attitude and behaviour, he is carrying out a stern examination of believers. He wants them to face up to what they are. In the case of fellow-Christians they should have a deep reason for compassion, for they are considering those who share with them in God. So if they do not help them their case is hopeless. Indeed they are revealing that they do not actually have God’s love dwelling within them. If they fail this test, they fail all.

Verse 18

‘Little children, let us not love in word, nor with the tongue, but in deed and truth.’

John then follows his specific example with a general plea. It is not only in charitable giving that we should love. Our love, if true, should not be just something we talk about but something we live out practically in every aspect of our lives. Glib words are easy, saying that we love costs nothing, but practical living is the test. It proves whether love is really true or not, indeed whether it is in accordance with the truth. Therefore, he says, let us make sure that it is by loving in what we do and in truth, by loving what God loves.

‘Little children.’ The love of the Apostle constantly shines through. He writes, not judgmentally, but from loving concern. And yet that gives even greater force to his words. If he could be lenient he would be.

Verses 19-20

‘By this we will know that we are of the truth, and will convince (persuade) our heart before him, because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.’

To the modern commentator these and the following verses are seen as somewhat linguistically complicated. This may possibly arise from the Greek spoken in John’s environment. What may seem to us complicated Greek may merely be colloquial. But whatever the case we must do what we can with it.

‘By this’ must surely refer back to the previous verse, for it makes little sense to look for an application for it in what follows. It is by being genuine in the outworking of love for our fellow believers in the truth that we can know that we are of the truth. It demonstrates our love for the truth.

‘And will convince (persuade) our heart before him.’ John expects that his letter will have made his readers and hearers ask themselves personal questions about their own state. He knows that their consciences will be at work. That is part of the purpose of his letter. So he wants to give them some assurance. Having examined themselves he wants them, if they are genuine Christians, to be convinced in their own hearts that all is well with them.

So he points out that once they can be satisfied that their love for their brethren who hold to the truth is genuine, and being genuinely lived out, they can know that they are of the truth, and can therefore convince themselves that all is right between them and God (‘right before Him, that is, in His presence’) in their hearts and consciences in His presence (‘Heart’ indicates the whole inner man, including reason, will, conscience and emotions). The point here is not that love for the brethren saves, but that it reveals that they are within the flow of truth, that they love the truth. It is among the true brethren that the truth is held and preached, and to love them and not the false prophets is to demonstrate a willing acceptance of the truth they teach.

‘Because if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.’ The question here is as to whether this is intended to give further assurance, that even if we still doubt (a sign in this case of a tender conscience rather than a lack of love), our genuine self-examination is evidence that we are genuine, and we can therefore remember that God knows all things and will therefore still accept us, so that our hearts can finally be convinced even in the midst of doubt. We can take comfort from God’s all-knowing and know that He knows the genuineness of our faith. Or whether it is a caveat entered on the basis that God knows all things and knows how we really think and are, and suggests therefore that we need to look to ourselves. The context suggests that the first is in mind. John wants God’s people to have assurance. But it may be that he wanted it to be ambiguous in order to meet different cases. The one of tender conscience to take comfort from it. The more hardhearted to be made to think.

Christian confidence is a theme of John. He has previously spoken of coming to God in confident confession (1 John 2:1), of having confidence before God at the coming of Christ (1 John 2:28), and he later speaks of having confidence at the judgment (1 John 4:17), and of the confidence believers have with God when they pray (1 John 5:14-15). This would support the idea that his aim is to plant confidence here. He seeks for Christians to be confident if they have true grounds for confidence.

Verses 21-23

‘Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness toward God, and whatever we ask we receive of him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment.’

On the assumption that they have convinced themselves that their response is genuine, he now goes on to outline its significance.

If their hearts do not now condemn them then they can have boldness in the presence of God (‘towards God’), and be sure that whatever they ask of Him they will receive, because they keep His commandments, and do what is pleasing in His sight. In other words, because they know that they are eager to do the will of God, they can have assurance that His work in their hearts is genuine, and can approach Him in prayer with confidence.

But we must beware of taking the promise too literally out of context. It is clearly not true that God will give us whatever we ask. If we ask for the things of the world, as opposed to what is necessary for living, that is contrary to the will of God. The promise is given only to those who keep His commandments and do what is pleasing in His sight, for they will then ask for what is right. Their prayers will be for the extension of the Kingly Rule of God and, apart from that which is necessary for their functioning in His service, not for themselves. This is in line indeed with what Jesus taught them (Matthew 6:7-15). The point here is that they can be bold to seek His help in bringing about the extension of His Kingship, and in thwarting the false prophets. Compare John 14:13-16; John 15:7; John 15:16; John 16:23-26) where the promises were given to the Apostles in the light of their coming ministry. In one of these formulations (John 16:23-24) Jesus uses almost identical terminology to the present verse.

And what are His commandments? They are that they believe in His Son Jesus Christ (compare 1 John 2:22-23), and that they love one another (compare 1 John 2:8-11). The first is the old commandment ‘hear His word, come to the truth and receive eternal life’, the second the new, ‘love your brothers’ (1 John 2:7-8). Without the first the second would in fact be meaningless, because there would be no definition as to whom they were to love.

So the first commandment is to believe on His Son Jesus Christ, with all the consequences that follow. For those who believe on Him have eternal life (1 John 5:12-13; John 1:12-13; John 5:24; John 10:28) for His commandment is eternal life (John 12:50). Thus it is by believing in Him that they will have eternal life.

It is not enough to believe in God, he is saying. The test of a genuine faith towards God, as laid down by God, is that they believe in His Son Jesus Christ with all that that involves. That they accept Him as His only Son, the only begotten God (John 1:14-18). That they accept that to have known Him is to have known the Father (John 14:9; John 8:18). That they accept that all that the Father has is His, so that He can call all that is the Father’s ‘Mine’ (John 16:15). That they accept that all judgment has been committed to Him (John 5:22; John 5:26). That they accept the fact that He can make alive whom He will on equal terms with the Father (John 5:21). That they accept that He is equally deserving of honour as the Father (John 5:23). That they accept that He is the eternal ‘I am’ (John 8:58). That they accept that the Holy Spirit of God does His bidding (John 15:26). That they accept the fact that He and the Father together come to make their dwellingplace in His own (John 16:7). That they accept that the Father has glorified Him with His own self and glory, the glory which They once shared together before creation (John 17:5). That they accept that as the Word He is God, and the Creator of all things (John 1:1-3). It was acceptance of all this which made Thomas cry out, ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28).

The second commandment is that they love one another. We note at once the parallel between these commandments and the two great commandments, that ‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ and that ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:30-31), but here it is ‘believe in the name (nature, character, being) of His Son Jesus Christ’ and ‘love one another’. Love is to flow upwards and outwards. This is the new Israel.

Verse 24

‘And he who keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.’

John sums up the section by indicating the close relationship between ‘keeping His commandments’ and ‘abiding in Him’. Those who do keep (receive, meditate on, hold in the mind and carry through in the life) His commandments, having believed on His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 3:23), do abide in Him, for their response proves their love of Him. It proves they are walking in the light. And the corollary is that He abides in them. They are indwelt by God, and dwell in God. And the certain positive final proof of His abiding in us is the Spirit which He gave us, the Spirit Who is therefore God, ‘the anointing’, Who testifies to the truth about Jesus Christ.

This added on phrase now leads on to an examination of the testimony of the Spirit to Jesus Christ. John has just mentioned the commandment to ‘believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ’, now he stresses how important it is that such faith in Him be built on the right foundation.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 John 3". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-john-3.html. 2013.
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