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THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE SONSHIP
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
THE last word of the previous chapter brought to mind that the Christian is related to God by a spiritual and Divine birth. A Christian is one “born of the Spirit”—“born of God.” But St. John suddenly feels how much is involved, and included in that new Divine birth, and expresses sudden feeling in the outburst of grateful surprise which begins chap. 3. Birth brings near to thought Divine Fatherhood, and privileges of spiritual sonship. That sonship may bring some present disabilities, but it has in it the very noblest possibilities, and time is altogether on its side.
1 John 3:1. What manner.—ποταπήν, of what kind; “how great of its kind.” The Father.—The distinctive name of the Christian God, as Jehovah was the distinctive name of the Jewish God. Bestowed.—Compare John 1:12, R.V. Notice the singular use of διδόναι. Be called.—I.e. should bear the name, and experience the reality of sonship. Not something that is to be ours in the future. A privileged relation into which we are brought now. We receive the name because we have the reality. Sons of God.—Better, as R.V., “children,” which is more comprehensive, and bears better relation to the comparison of 1 John 3:2. An addition is necessary here, as in R.V., “and such we are.” “God has allowed us to be called children, and children we are.” Therefore.—Better, “for this cause”: on account of our being children of the Father, the world does not recognise us, since it does not recognise Him. Dr. Plummer says that “St. Augustine compares the attitude of the world towards God to that of sick men in delirium who would do violence to their physician.”
1 John 3:2. Sons.—Children. Appear.—Made manifest; evident to our present apprehension. Omit the word “but.” For “when” read “if.” For “He” margin reads “it,” which makes the reference to be to the full meaning of the sonship, which can only be imperfectly apprehended under present conditions. If “He” is preserved, the reference is to Christ, and to His second coming, which appears to have been at this time in St. John’s thought (see chap, 1 John 2:28). If we take the word “He,” the likeness suggested is to Christ. If we take the word “it,” the likeness suggested is to the Father-God. See Him as He is.—Compare 2 Corinthians 3:18. “The Divine image which was lost in the Fall shall be restored.”
1 John 3:3. Hope in Him.—There is certainly more point if this is referred to Christ. Hope in God is too general, since John is addressing Christians, and dealing with their distinctive hope of being fully like Christ. Purifieth Himself.—The word ἁγνίζειν is used chiefly in a technical sense of ceremonial purifications; and St. John, in Revelation 1:6, represents Christians as made “kings and priests unto God.” The Christian’s “purifying himself” must be seen in its harmony with the other side of truth which St. John presents. “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us [Christians] from all sin.” As He is pure.—The holiness of Christ, as the holiness of a man living on earth under human conditions, is our model and inspiration. Such holiness is an attainable thing, because it has once been attained.
1 John 3:4. Committeth sin.—Better, “doeth the sin, doeth also lawlessness.” This should not be taken as a merely general statement; it is specific to those whom St. John addresses. A Christian who wilfully does sin must not for one moment imagine that his standing in Christ has freed him from the grip of the law. St. John had in mind the Gnostics, who considered the moral law to be no longer binding on the enlightened, as a rule of life. Transgression of the law.—Better, “is [or doeth] lawlessness,” i.e. acts from caprice, not from conscience; does his own will, not God’s.
1 John 3:5. Take away our sins.—Not the same as “blot out our sins.” Two reasons are given for the sinlessness of Christians:
1. To take away the love and the power of sin was Christ’s work. They would not want to sin if Christ was really doing His work in them.
2. Christ was the model Christian, and His example was distinctly one of sinless-ness, in this sense, that He never wanted to sin. Those who are sons with Christ, through the new spiritual birth, never want to sin. They may be overborne by frailties; they never will to sin.
1 John 3:6. Abideth.—One of St. John’s special words. See Romans 7:20; Galatians 2:20. Whosoever sinneth.—Purposely, wilfully, persistently, proves that he has not in him that new life which comes with the spiritual birth. Not having the life, he has not the vision which alone can see Christ, nor the apprehension that alone can know Him, because these belong exclusively to the new life.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 3:1-6
What we are, and what we hope to be.—The things which St. John remembered, of the words and works of the Lord Jesus, were the things that most arrested and engaged his attention, and became most firmly fixed in his memory. It is a general mental law, that we remember things according to the measure of attention that we give to them. And that law is used, not swept aside, when the Divine inspiration comes to a man. Only St. John records our Lord’s interview with Nicodemus. Only St. John distinctly gives us the idea of the Christian life as coming from a new and Divine birth. “Ye must be born from above.” The apostle evidently made this a ruling idea in his ministry. Closing the previous chapter, he had said, “If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that every one also that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him.” That word “begotten” brings before him his favourite thought, and he is at once carried away by his feelings, and led to exclaim, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us!” For that begetting of the Father makes us spiritual sons; and it is not possible to unfold all that is involved in being spiritually, and with Christ, the children of God. We can, however, see what present obligations that new birth and that new relation bring. It delivers us from wanting to sin, and it puts us upon earnest self-purifying. This is the point of the paragraph, which may be unfolded in the following way:—
I. As new-born, we may think what we now are.—All the apostles deal with the Christian standing, and expect to gain persuasion unto righteousness, consistency, and service, by presenting and urging the Christian privileges; but none make so much of the Divine sonship as does the apostle John. St. Paul’s idea is adoption into the family of God. St. John’s idea is actual spiritual birth into the spiritual family, involving direct, and immediate, and complete family rights and privileges. Adoption implies something that we may become; birth implies something that we are.
1. We are objects of the Divine love. “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us!” The expression of surprise reminds us of St. John’s familiar sentence, “God so loved the world”; and it may be illustrated by Goneril’s answer to King Lear: “Beyond all manner of so much I love you.” St. John had fully entered into the Christ-revelation of God as the Father; and indeed that was essential to the idea he had of the beginning of Christian life as a birth, and the relation of Christian life as a sonship. Outside the Christian sphere God may be the Creator, the Provider, the moral Governor—El, or Shaddai, or Jehovah. Within the Christian sphere, on the standing with Christ the Son, God is, distinctly and comprehensively, the Father. But birth is the fruitage of human love, and St. John sublimates the idea, and bids us think of God’s giving birth to spiritual sons as a fruitage of His Fatherly love; and then we are permitted to think that God’s spiritual children are dear to Him, even as our natural children are to us. We stand in the surprising love of our heavenly Father. We are called sons, children, because we are wrapped round, watched, and tended with the Father-love of Him by whom we are begotten. Perhaps we have never yet entered fully into all the precious meaning involved in our being spiritually begotten by the eternal Father, and so actually in a standing with Him beside His Son Jesus. Did we realise that, we should at once utter our thankful surprise with St. John, and say, “Behold what manner of love.”
2. We are children of God. The R.V. does well in substitviting “children” for “sons”—not only because “children” is more inclusive than “sons,” but because, as we shall presently see, what he has to say depends on our recognising the immaturity that belongs to children. It may, however, be asked whether all men are not, by nature, the children of God. They are, in a sense; but there is a further sense in which Jesus was the Son of God—Son by a mysterious spiritual generation. It is in something of that sense that we too may become children of God. The Hindoos speak of men as being “twice born.” And we may see a double sense in which we are the children of God: a first sense in which we are the creations of His power, into whom He has breathed His breath of life, and whom He makes the objects of parental and providential care; and a second sense, in which we are the quickenings of His Spirit, and live in a higher life of relations with Him, which glorify the lower. We are children of God in a spiritual sense. And if we would understand that, we must enter into the mystery of Christ as the spiritual Son of God. His real life on earth was the life of His spiritual sonship; and this carried into a responsive and harmonious service all His bodily life, and all His material relations. In a spiritual sense Jesus was the Son of God; in that same sense we are the children of God—born, in the Divine love, into the Father’s spiritual family. The life of children that we live is a spiritual life. The obedience of children that we offer is spiritual obedience. The service of children that we render is spiritual service. It carries with it the material life, and powers, and relations, just as Christ’s spiritual life as the Son carried to the Father the full devotion and consecration of His human life; but His Sonship and ours are essentially spiritual; and what we have therefore to be supremely anxious about is the child-life of our souls. Keep that nourished into health and vigour, and there need not be any fear of its failing to carry into obedience the whole material life.
3. We are sharers in the experience of Christ. This is involved in what has now been said; but St. John brings in a point which we might readily have missed. It is one which our Divine Lord set in prominence in His great high-priestly prayer. He prayed thus for His disciples, “I have given them Thy word; and the world hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” And St. John, in his epistle, says, “For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.” The experience of Christ was that which one born into and living in a spiritual sphere must always repeat. It is another life to the material life of men. It is otherwise. There are other atmospheres, other interests, and other relations; and the people who are confined to the lower ranges can no better understand the life, and thought, and feeling of those in the higher ranges, than the uneducated rustic can understand and appreciate the speeches in a convention of scientific men. The people who were unspiritual could do nothing with Christ, when He was here on earth, but turn Him out, and crucify Him. And in every age it has been a grave source of suspicion when the Church has confederated with the world, and the world has felt that it understood the Church. It is the side of peril in which the spiritual life is placed in these days. Be spiritual children of God, and you must share the experience of Christ; “the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.”
II. As new-born, we may think what we hope to be.—“We know that, if He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is.” The margin R.V. gives, “if it shall be manifested,” and makes the reference to be to the sonship; but St. John evidently had the reappearance of Christ in his mind, for immediately before (chap. 1 John 2:28) he had written, “Abide in Him; that, if He shall be manifested, we may have boldness, and not to be ashamed before Him at His coming.” And the point of the apostle is evidently this—Our Lord’s Sonship has unfolded in the heavenlies into something quite beyond our present apprehension. But it is the proper unfolding of the spiritual sonship. And we shall find that the growth of our spiritual life, even here on earth, is growth along the same lines, so that this surprise awaits us—when we do understand what Christ now has become, and is, we shall find that we have been growing so like Him, that we shall be able to see Him even as He is. If we did not grow and develop as spiritual children of the Father, and the Only Begotten did blossom into a glorified humanity, a glorified manhood, we should lose Him—lose our relations with Him, and blind our eyes, so that we should not be able to see Him. And St. John would therefore say—See how much depends on the self-purifying, self-culture of the spiritual life. This idea may be opened in two ways:
1. “We shall be like Him”—that is, we shall be matured, as a child is who has become a man. It will at once be seen what point is given by reading “now are we the children of God,” instead of “sons of God.” Now are we but “children,” in the child-stage. We cannot now realise what it is to be children still, but children in the mature, the man-stage. But that is precisely what Christ is now, a Child matured through a completed earth-experience, who has reached His man-stage, His full maturity, as a spiritual Son. But who of us can imagine what the full maturity of spiritual sonship is? Who of us can worthily conceive Christ in heaven, in His glorified humanity—the spiritual Child of earth unfolded into the spiritual Man in heaven? You see the earth-child bright with play, the earth-boy busy with lessons, the youth learning his trade. Do any of them know what it is to be a man? Can any of them anticipate a man’s thoughts, and feelings, and ways? And yet they are on their way to that manhood; and if they grow worthily, they are growing into that manhood. And when it is come, when it is manifested, they will find that they have been precisely preparing for it, and are able quite to understand it. And that seems to be St. John’s thought. We are all now in the child-stage, spiritually. Jesus our Lord was also in the child-stage once, when He tarried among men here. He is out of the child-range now. He is in the spiritual manhood and maturity now. And we cannot fully and worthily realise Him as He is. But it does not matter greatly; for of this we may be well assured—if we do but worthily grow through our child-stages, we too shall become men, and then we shall have the great glory of discovering, that we can see and understand Christ. We can be, like Him, sons still, but sons that have grown into full maturity and manhood. Child-training may be trying, anxious work; it may seem to be moving toward nothing. It is moving towards the spiritual manhood which assuredly will give us the vision of Christ as He is.
2. “We shall be like Him”—that is, we shall be pure, as He is whose character has come through a severe life-testing. “Every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” We do not know what Christ now is, but we do know one thing—“He is pure”: not merely “innocent,” as a little child is pure; but pure as a man can be pure who has walked life’s soiling highways, and experienced life’s temptations. Of this we can be absolutely certain, “He is pure”—fittingly figured before us as the infinitely white One of the book of Revelation. If we are ever to see Him as He is, we must become like Him in this. Only the pure-souled can ever see pure souls. Then see how this becomes an inspiration to self-purifying. If the hope of seeing Christ as He is is set before us, it will surely exercise a present and practical influence on our daily life and endeavour. St. John gives us both sides of this most inspiring truth. He who is spiritually born of God does not want to sin. He strives with himself that he may not sin. Yet he may sin through frailties and infirmities. But the “blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all such sin”; and we have an Advocate with the Father, and He is the propitiation for our sins. We shall see Him, when we are pure as He is pure. And if we are ever to be pure, we must now be purifying ourselves. We can understand this best, if we think of the immaturity—in respect of moral purity—of the child-stage. You cannot in any high spiritual sense call a child pure. You can call him innocent. You may recognise that in some small things he may have won victory over himself, and over evil, and so gained a beginning of purity. But a man can never be morally pure until he has been soiled, or at least has come to understand what it is to be soiled. His manhood of passions and possibilities must have come to him before you can talk of his moral purity. That manhood must have been submitted to its Divinely arranged circle of earthly testings and temptations, and come through them all victorious, ere we can possibly speak of the man as morally pure. And self-purification is precisely this—the effort which the new life in Christ makes to win the whole body and the whole earth-relations for righteousness. Do it. Let your life be one persistent effort to purify the self, and one day, the day when Christ is fully apprehended, you will find that you can see Him as He is, because you are like Him. The issue of the life-struggle is, that you are pure, “even as He is pure.” There is one other thing that we are clearly to see. That hope, that particular Christian hope of one day being like Christ, and therefore able to see Him as He is, acts in a really practical way upon us. Usually hope does little save set men dreaming: this hope sets men working, and even working upon themselves. It becomes a present impulse to self-purifying. It becomes a present defence from the sinning of self-love and self-serving. “Every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself.” “Every one that doeth sin doeth also lawlessness: and sin is lawlessness.… Whosoever abideth in Him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither known Him.” The Christian hope then is of unfolding through this child-stage of earth into the maturity which Christ has gained. The Christian hope is of winning at last that purity which Christ has gained. Christ won it through a human life of conflict, and so must we. “It is enough for the servant that he be as his Master.” Be as the Master in the daily sanctifyings, self-purifyings, of earth, and then the great surprise awaits you. One day you will see Christ—see Christ as He is. He will be manifested to you; and the secret will be this—beyond all your possible imaginings you will be found like Him, cultured into likeness to Him, and therefore able to see Him as He is. Sons come to their manhood, even as He has.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 3:1. The Christian Standing.—How different is the tone which men put on their teachings and writings! Some are coldly intellectual; some are wisely restrained; some are passionately intense; and some are emotional, even to weakness. But there is a sphere of service and influence for men and women of every kind of temperament—for practical James, and impulsive Paul, and mystical John. It is characteristic of the apostle John that he gives us truth with the glow of personal feeling upon it. He himself grasps the truth through personal feeling, spiritual insight, rather than by distinct mental operations. And he is to be fully understood only by those who are found in answering sympathetic moods. We may well be warned of the influence exerted on us by the scientific spirit of our times. It tends to make us think that cannot be truth at all which cannot be set down in intellectual forms, and fully verified. It remains the fact, however the scientific mind may try to resist it, that man has to feel his way, not think his way, into the best truth he can attain. As long as we have the writings of the apostle John, we shall be sure of this—that our love can be the opening of our eyes to see the deepest and the best of God’s truth, and the saintly soul may know Him better than the cultured mind. St. John should be recognised as the apostle of the sonship. His chief words are “Father,” “Son,” “Fellowship.” He received fully that revelation of the Divine Fatherhood which Jesus brought. He knew in his own life-experience the exceeding honour and joy of the sonship in Christ. Our Lord constantly taught the Fatherhood of God toward men; and the apostles constantly taught the sonship of men toward the Father. The two truths answer to one another. We behold the manner of love the Father hath bestowed. We see it, we know it, we feel it, in this—that to us is given the standing, the relationship, the spirit of sons. And our separation from the world is found in this—we are like our Father-God.
I. The Christian standing.—“Called the sons of God.” We do not hesitate to affirm, that this is something distinct and peculiar to the Christian religion. Other religions propose no such relations to the gods. There have been many forms of incarnation, but never elsewhere has the essence of the Incarnation been the manifestation of God in the relation of sonship, Divine help to the apprehension of God through the nearest and dearest of human ties, man in his best forms of fellowship representing the relationship existing between God and His creatures. Think what standings men may possibly have before their God. They may be the creatures of a Creator, and so may have reasonable claims to His care, His providings, and His guidance. He who makes a thing, brings a thing into being, is honourably bound to provide for the thing which He has made. And so “God’s tender mercies are over all His works”; and He “maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good; and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.” “The eyes of all wait upon Him, and He giveth them their meat in due season.” We have our rights before God, on the standing-ground that we are His creatures. “He gave us breath and being.” “He made us, and not we ourselves: we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.” It is well sometimes to remind ourselves of our common rights before God as His creatures. “He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things.” Sometimes our standing before God is represented as that of subjects to a king. We do not greatly value this mode of presenting our relationship, because a king is a purely earthly creation, a governmental device of sinful men, who wanted to protect themselves from one another. When God set men forth upon His world, He made fathers; when men cast God off, and took the ordering of life into their own hands, they made “kings.” But this good lies in regarding our standing as that of subjects—it brings prominently before us that we are under the control of law and rule, and that this rule is in the hands of One altogether beyond and above us. It must be wrong for us to follow “the devices and desires of our own hearts.” “God is the great king above all gods.” But neither of these forms of standing before God can satisfy men who can think, and love, and trust, and yearn for a supreme object of love, one who can be trusted absolutely. Man is not a mere creature of a creator; he is not a mere subject of a king. There is a child in every man. And there is no rest for any man until the child in him has found the eternal Father. And this is the very essence of God’s revelation, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to Me a son.” “Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts.” Dr. A. Maclaren, in a sermon on this text, says: “Thank God, the prodigal son, in his rags among the swine, and lying by the swine-troughs in his filth, and his husks, and his fever, is still a son. No doubt about that! He has these three elements and marks of sonship that no man ever gets rid of: he is of Divine origin; he has a Divine likeness in that he has got mind, and will, and spirit; and he is the object of a Divine love. The doctrine of the New Testament about the Fatherhood of God, and the sonship of man, does not in the slightest degree interfere with these great truths: that all men, though the features of the common humanity may be almost battered out of recognition in them, are all children of God because He made them; they are children of God because still there lives in them something of the likeness of the creative Father; and, blessed be His name! they are all children of God because He loves, and provides, and cares for every one of them.” All this is true; and yet there is a higher relation to which the name “sons of God” is more accurately given; and this higher sonship is the aim and purpose of the revelation of God’s love to men, and most especially of the great gift of His love in Christ. Think of the case of right relation between an earthly father and his child. There is a purely physical tie. There is a condition resulting from the long years of close association. There has grown up a very loving sense of dependence; and it has even become a mutual dependence. But there is more. There is a full sympathy, perfect love, unquestioning trust. And these bring a joy unspeakable into the relationship. The Christian standing of sonship is the relation in its very highest form. And to St. John it seems so supremely blessed, that he calls on us to “behold,” to look, to look long, and fully realise what “manner of love” it was that put us in this standing and relation. Let us not fail to recognise that “sonship” involves “brotherhood.” Our common life in Christ ought to bring us closely together. As Christians, these are our marked peculiarities. We have a heavenly Father; we are, spiritually, sons; we are bound in fellowship with the Father’s other sons; we belong to a family, some members of which are in the heavenlies, and some are with us yet on earth; and the family name is, “the general assembly and Church of the firstborn, which ore written in heaven.”
II. The ground of our standing.—God’s love in calling us to be sons. To understand this, let us think of the prodigal son in our Lord’s parable, who so penitently and so humbly said, “I am no more worthy to be called thy son,” because he felt, in his deep heart, that he had made himself so unsonlike. Then if God can call us sons, we may be sure that He only calls us what we are, and in His great love He must have made us sonlike. And precisely that—making us sonlike, making us “obedient children”—is the great aim and purpose of the wonderful and gracious redemption which He has wrought for us in Christ. He is making us sons, so that He may call us what we are, and deal with us as the sons He would have us be. Did ever father show such love to a prodigal son as God, our Father, has shown to us, His wayward, wilful, lost sons and daughters? See what God has had to do. Think about it with the help of that most pathetic of all our Lord’s parables. He had to get a prodigal thinking rightly of his father. If he had thought aright, he never would have wandered off in his wilfulness, taking his “portion of goods.” He had to get the prodigal to think rightly of himself. The conceited confidence in the management of his own life had to be utterly broken down, as failure, calamity, and degrading wretchedness alone could break it down. He had to set the prodigal upon longing for home, and envying the very servants that went to and fro in the dear old house. He had to show the prodigal the way home. For fears blinded his eyes, and despair would have made him faint by the way. And He had to inspire the father to meet with such a love and welcome the prodigal’s return, that sin and wilfulness, fear and despair, would for ever flee away, and the sweet joy of sonlike feelings come back to the humbled soul. Types of God! Suggestions of the Divine Fatherhood! Beautiful vision! St. John looks on Christians as a company of returned prodigals—he knows that nothing but the Father’s love could have won them back; they are sitting, happy indeed, at their Father’s table, and they are once again called sons. And St. John exclaims, as he looks upon them, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed!” Do you ask then for the ground of oustanding? It is this, only this, but thus is everything—our Father’s love. Would we “know the love of God, which passeth knowledge,”? We must turn to the work of Christ. “The most wonderful revelation to every heart of man, of the depths of the Divine heart, lies in the gift of Jesus Christ. I turn to the cross, and I see there a love which is evoked by no lovableness on my part, but comes from the depths of His own infinite being, who loves because He must, and who must because He is God. I turn to the cross, and I see there manifested a love which sighs for recognition, which desires nothing of me but the repayment of my poor affection, and longs to see its own likeness in me. And I see there a love which will not be put away by sinfulness, and shortcomings, and evil, but pours its treasures on the unworthy, like sunshine on a dunghill. So, streaming through the darkness of eclipse, and speaking to me even in the awful silence in which the Son of man died there for sin, “I behold,” and I hear, the “manner of love that the Father hath bestowed upon us,” stronger than death and sin, armed with all power, gentler than the fall of the dew, boundless and endless, in. its measure measureless, and in its quality transcendent—the love of God to me in Jesus Christ my Saviour” (A. Maclaren, D.D.).
III. The world’s blindness to this Christian standing.—“Therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.” It was the fact of St. John’s time, that the Christians were neglected and despised. But the fact surprised the loving apostle, because he looked upon the men of the world as “sons of God” too. Only they did not know their Father in His fullest relations, and so they did not feel like sons indeed, and then find themselves looking out for their Father’s other sons. Our Lord prepared us for the treatment the world would give us. “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” St. John’s meaning may be illustrated from our own family life. Outsiders are strangers to all the secret joys we find in our home fellowships; and the world can never understand or appreciate the pleasures we find in our family life with God. And what shall be said in conclusion? Only these two things:
1. Here is the bond that binds the heavenly family together. Not any mental agreement. That we can never get while brains vary in size, capacity, and contents. This—knowing and feeling our Father’s love. You know that. So do I. Then we are one for all human fellowship in the common joy of that love.
2. Here is the truth given to the family to use in getting back the rest of the prodigal sons. The Father yearns over them. He cannot bear to see their vacant places at the table. He wants them to come home. This opens up the gospel, which is the good news of the Father’s love for His sons, for all His sons; and of this the Lord Jesus Christ, the “Man Christ Jesus,” is the proof, the “teacher, the illustration, and the persuasion.”
The Love that calls us Sons.—This text may point to the fact that we are called the sons of God, as the great exemplification of the wonderfulness of His love. But it is better to see that the love bestowed is the means by which the design that we should be called His sons is accomplished. What John calls us to contemplate with wonder and gratitude is not only the fact of this marvellous love, but also the glorious end for which it has been given to us, and works, viz. that men should become, in the deepest sense, God’s children. The Revised Version adds the words “and such we are,” a kind of rapid “aside” of the writer.
I. The love that is given.—We can no more “behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us,” than we can look with undimmed eyes right into the middle of the sun. But we can look on the sun’s activities. So we have to turn to the work of Christ, and especially to His death, if we would estimate the love of God. Through and in the great sacrifice of Jesus Christ there comes to us the gift of a Divine life like His own. This communication of Divine life, which is at bottom Divine love—for God’s life is God’s love—is His great gift to men. Christ for us and Christ in us must both be taken into account if you would estimate the manner of the love that God has bestowed upon us.
II. The sonship which is the purpose of His given love.—John’s phrase, “the sons of God,” is, “children of God.” Stress is laid on the Children’s kindred nature with their Father, and on their immature condition. Consider this great gift and dignity of being children of God, which is the object that God has in view in all the lavish bestowment of His goodness upon us. There are two families amongst men. All men are children of God because He made them; because there still lives in them something of the likeness of the creative Father; and because He loves, and provides, and cares for every one of them. But there is a higher relation than that, to which the name “children of God” is more accurately given, and to which in the New Testament that name is confined. What is implied in that great word by which the Almighty gives us a name and a place as of sons and daughters? Clearly, first, a communicated life; second, a kindred nature which shall be “pure as He is pure”; third, growth to full maturity.
III. The glad recognition of this sonship by the child’s heart.—By the expression “and such are we,” John asserts his and their glad consciousness of the reality of the fact of their sonship, which they know to be no empty title. He asserts, too, the present possession of that sonship, realising it as a fact, amid all the commonplace vulgarities, and carking cares, and petty aims of life’s little day. He turns doctrine into experience.
IV. The loving and devout gaze upon this wonderful love.—“Behold.” This is not a mere exclamation, but a distinct command to do the thing, to look, and ever look, and to look again, and live in the habitual and devout contemplation of that infinite and wondrous love of God. Such a habit of devout and thankful meditation upon the love of God, as manifested in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and the consequent gift of the Divine Spirit, joined with the humble, thankful conviction that I am a child of God thereby, lies at the foundation of all vigorous and happy Christian life. But we cannot keep that great sight before the eye of our minds without effort. You will have very resolutely to look away from something else, if, amid all the dazzling gauds of earth, you are to see the far-off lustre of that heavenly love.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
1 John 3:2. Getting like Christ.—We shall know Christ by getting like Him. The water of life takes the shape of the containing vessel, but it has likewise the property of dilating the spirit into which it flows, and, by fruition, enlarging capacity, and hence kindling desire. The sun shines upon the sensitive plate, and an image of the sun is photographed there.—Ibid.
The Inestimable Privileges of Believers.—Our Lord was hated, reviled, and persecuted unto death; but we see how glorious was His person, and how exalted His character. In the same manner His followers are treated with contempt; but God declares their state to be the most honourable upon earth. To this effect St. John represents them as slighted by man and honoured by God.
I. The present state of believers.—Not servants, but sons.
1. His by adoption. Every believer was once a child of wrath. But God takes whom He will into His family; He adopts them as His sons, and makes them heirs of His glory.
2. Also by regeneration. Born again of the Holy Spirit; they are renewed after the image of their heavenly Father.
3. They enjoy this slate “now.” Rich and poor, learned and unlearned, partake alike of this honour. Even now, while the world despises them, does God own His relation to them. What an unspeakably blessed state is this! How different from the state they were once in! How great the privileges of this relation! To what a glorious state does-it lead in a better world!
II. Their future state.—
1. Very little is known respecting this. No idea of spiritual and glorified bodies. We cannot imagine how extensive will be the capacities of the soul. We have very faint conceptions of perfect holiness and perfect happiness.
2. Yet there are some things revealed to us. We shall see Christ with our bodily eyes. We shall resemble Him in all His imitable perfections. This resemblance will result from our sight of Him.
3. These things we may be said to “know.” We have already experienced the earnest of them in our hearts. When we believe in Him, we have views of Him which we had not before: these transform the soul into His image. Our Lord has given us the full assurance of these things. St. Paul leaves us no room to doubt (1 Corinthians 15:49; Colossians 3:4).
1. How wonderfully different the lot of believers and unbelievers. Believers are children of God; unbelievers are children of the wicked one. One no idea of the happiness of the future; the other no idea of the misery. How different their feelings on seeing Christ upon His judgment-throne! What a different state to all eternity! If we believe in Christ, these blessings shall be ours.
2. How bright the prospects of the true Christian. The Christian’s warfare will soon be over. Another day may bring him to the full possession of it. Let these prospects animate every pious soul. Let none of us suffer our minds to be drawn away by the things of time. Let every one stand ready to take his flight. Let the beloved apostle be our example.—C. Simeon, M.A.
Likeness brings Vision.—This familiar passage is altered in the Revised Version, which reads: “Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if He [margin, it] shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him even as He is.” This is the dreamy, meditative utterance of an aged saint, whose interest is in the other life to which he is hastening. Compare a young man’s speculative and an old man’s meditative way of dealing with the future life. St. John has been expressing joy in the standing of the redeemed as sons. The Father’s giving prodigals again their places as sons is a surprise of love. In the text he dwells on it broodingly. There is something we know. There is something that we cannot know. What we cannot actually know, we can argue about, and get comfort and assurance from our argument.
I. Something we know.—“Now are we the children of God.” The word “children” is more inclusive than the word “sons.” Children—
1. In fact—of nature, and of restoration.
2. In favour—within the shadow of the Fatherliness.
3. In feeling—really wanting to be, and striving to be, children. We need not wait for the joy of the fact, the safety of the favour, or the inspiration of the feeling. We ought to have them all now.
II. Something we cannot know.—“It is not yet made manifest what we shall be.” It cannot be known—
1. Because we are unable to understand.
2. Because we are only getting like what we are to be. Illustrate by the boy not realising his manhood, because he is only getting towards it.
3. Because Christ is out of present apprehension. But everything that is growing is growing up to something, though it may not now know what is to be its flower or its fruit. The Christian is surely growing to something; but no Christian ever reached full flowering, so as to hang the perfect flower out in the earth-skies. All who remain among the earthly things remain among imperfect things.
III. What we cannot know we can argue about.—Compare the A.V. “He” with the R.V. margin “it.” When what we shall be is manifested. It will be by-and-by. One thing is certain—then we shall see God. But seeing God is only possible to the creature in seeing Christ, who is the ray of the eternal Sun that comes into the sensible spheres. We have had Christ in the flesh, and men apprehended Him thus. We have Christ in the Spirit, and we do apprehend Him thus. But these involve limitations. (Illustrate from T. Moore’s Lalla Rookh, “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan.”) We are to see Christ as He is in His glorified humanity, and then we shall find that He is what we have been growing to become like. We can argue thus: If we see Him, we must have become like Him. Try this with the apostles—that apostle knew Jesus best who was most like Him. It was St. John. Then this is a practical application for us—in the measure of our growing likeness to Christ comes to us the clearer vision of Him. If we are ever to be like Him, we must be getting daily towards that end, changing into His likeness, image. Our best helps are present lookings into the face of Christ. There is a story, or parable, of a family in the Spanish Indies, who were in nowise different from their neighbours in the same upland, save that, when they looked towards the sky, every one of them saw a face looking back upon him. The family got scattered, and multiplied; but, into whatever towns or strange lands they came, this mark followed every one of them—that still he saw the face which no other around him could see. Men marked that, while differing widely in other respects, all were like to each other in their look. And while some explained that they inherited this common look from their ancestors, others said that, by looking to the one face, they grew like to it in their own visage, and, consequently, like to each other. The story may stand for illustration of what takes place through looking unto Jesus: we are changed into His likeness—as, in His appearing, “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
“For, oh! the Master is so fair,
He smiles so sweet to banished men,
That they who once have seen His face
Can never rest on earth again.”
In heaven, after “ages of ages” of growing glory, we shall have to say, as each new wave of the shoreless, sunlit sea bears us onward, “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.”—A. Maclaren, D.D.
The Unrevealed Future of the Sons of God.—The present is the prophet of the future. “Now are we the sons of God, and” (not “but”) “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”
I. The fact of sonship makes us quite sure of the future.—The strongest reasons for believing in another world are these two: first, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and has gone up there; and, second, that a man here can pray, and trust, and love God, and feel that he is His child. Childhood leads to maturity. He that here, in his infantile way, is stammering with his poor, unskilled lips the name, “Abba, Father,” will one day come to speak it fully. He that dimly trusts, he that partially loves, he that can lift up his heart in some more or less unworthy prayer and aspiration after God, in all these emotions and exercises has the great proof in himself that such emotions, such relationships, can never be put an end to. The roots have gone down through the temporal, and have laid hold on the Eternal. “We are the sons of God”; therefore we shall always be so, in all worlds, and whatsoever may become of the poor wrappage in which the soul is shrouded. Not only the fact of our sonship avails to assure us of immortal life, but the very form which our religious experience takes points in the same direction. As the bud foretells the flower, so the very imperfections of the Christian life, as it is seen here, argue the existence of another state, where all that is here in the germ shall be fully matured, and all that is here incomplete shall attain the perfection which alone will correspond to the power that works in us. Think of the ordinary Christian character. The beginning is there, and evidently no more than the beginning. As one looks at the crudity, the inconsistencies, the failings, the feebleness, of the Christian life of others, or of oneself, and then thinks that such a poor, imperfect exhibition is all that so Divine a principle has been able to achieve in this world, one feels that there must be a region and a time where we shall be all which the transforming power of God’s Spirit can make us. The very inconsistencies of Christians are as strong reasons for believing in the perfect life of heaven as their purities and virtues are. There is a great deal in every man, and most of all in Christian men and women, which does not fit this present. The consciousness of belonging to another order of things, because I am God’s child, will make me sure that, when I have done with earth, the tie that binds me to my Father will not be broken.
II. We remain ignorant of much in that future.—John seems to say, “There has never been set forth before men’s eyes, in this earthly life of ours, an example, or an instance, of what the sons of God are to be in another state of being.” And so, because men have never had the instance before them, they do not know much about that state. In some sense there has been a manifestation through the life of Jesus Christ. Let us feel two things: let us be thankful that we do not know, for the ignorance is the sign of the greatness; and, then, let us be sure that just the very mixture of knowledge and ignorance which we have about another world is precisely the food which is most fitted to nourish imagination and hope. The white mountains keep their secret well; not until we have passed through the black rocks, that make the throat of the pass on the summit, shall we see the broad and shining plains beyond the hills.
III. Our sonship flings one all penetrating beam of light on that future, in the knowledge of our perfect vision and perfect likeness.—“When He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” His “coming” is His manifestation. To behold Christ will be the condition and the means of growing like Him. That way of transformation by beholding, or of assimilation by the power of loving contemplation, is the blessed way of ennobling character, which even here, and in human relationships, has often made it easy to put off old vices, and to clothe the soul with unwonted grace.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
Power of the Soul-vision of God.—Endeavour to keep vivid the consciousness of God’s face as looking always in on you, like the solemn frescoes of the Christ which Angelico painted on the walls of his convent cells, that each poor brother might feel his Master ever with him.—Ibid.
The Face of Jesus.—Painters have attempted to meet the longing to see the face of Jesus which Scripture leaves unsatisfied. They show us the child Jesus, clad at times in the “tender sweetness of unsuffering and unforeboding youthfulness,” and again with the shadow of the cross thrown over His face; they represent almost every incident of His ministry and life recorded in the New Testament; they venture into Gethsemane, with the mystery of its grief and agony; they fill up almost every moment from His leaving the Prætorium and going down the steps where the cross awaits Him, with a face in which there is no guile, and a bearing that shows Him equal to the endurance, onward till we see His dead face ready to be wrapped up for the grave; they trace Him from the grave to the Ascension; they show Him, as it were to-day, knocking at the heart-door, with a crown on His head, and eyes full of yearning love, and wondering, sorrowing patience. Few comparatively of these pictures are spiritually helpful; they fail to “enlarge our sense” of Christ. Some of them, indeed, are profane in the highest degree; not a few of them tend to a worship of art rather than of God. Many of the painters had no right to touch the subject. They may have been competent to render scenes from heathen mythology, or battle-pieces, or popes and emperors, or sensuous beauty, or portraits of a county gentleman or member of parliament, but they were as unfit for showing us the face of Jesus Christ as an unbeliever is for leading Christian song, or preaching the everlasting gospel. Especially in trying to represent the Sufferer, whose visage was “so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men,” they have made too much of the physical, and have missed the grand, glorious grief which marked Him for the Man of sorrows. And, after all they have shown us, we sympathise the more earnestly with the words of the apostle Paul: “Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.”—J. Culross, D.D.
1 John 3:3. The Purifying Influence of Hope.—Here is the most mystical teacher of the New Testament insisting on plain morality as vehemently as his friend James could have done His thought is a simple one—If you expect, and, expecting, hope to be like Jesus Christ yonder, you will be trying your best to be like Him here.
I. The principle insisted on—if we are to be pure, we must purify ourselves.—There are two ways of getting like Christ. One is the way of assimilation and transformation by beholding. “If we see Him, we shall be like Him.” The word “purify” speaks of another condition,—it implies impurity; it implies a process which is more than contemplation; it implies the reversal of existing conditions, and not merely the growth upwards to unattained conditions. Growth is not all that Christian men need: they need excision; they need casting out of what is in them; they need change as well as growth. Purifying they need, because they are impure. But if there is to be this purifying of the Christian, it must be done by the Christian himself. Our best way of cleansing ourselves is by keeping firm hold of Jesus Christ, and of the cleansing powers that lie in Him. The very deepest word about the Christian effort of self-purifying is this—keep close to Jesus Christ. We kill all evil by fellowship with the Master. But holding ourselves in fellowship with the Master is not all that we have to do. There have to be direct specific efforts, constantly repeated, to subdue and suppress individual acts of transgression. We have to fight against evil, sin by sin. Holiness is not feeling; it is character. You do not get rid of your sins by the act of Divine amnesty alone. You are not perfect because you say you are, and feel as if you were, and think you are. God’s cleansing does not dispense with fighting, but makes victory possible. Then first turn to Him from whom all cleansing comes; and then, moment by moment, remember that it is our work to purify ourselves by the strength that is given to us by the Master.
II. This purifying of ourselves is the link or bridge between the present and the future.—“Now are we the sons of God” is the pier on one side of the gulf. “When He is made manifest, we shall be like Him”—that is the pier on the other side. How are the two to be connected? We must throw across the gulf, by God’s help, day by day here, that bridge of oureffort after growing likeness to Himself, and purity therefrom. The one link between sonship here and likeness to Christ hereafter is this link of present, strenuous effort to become like Him day by day in personal purity. Only this effort will ever enable us to “see Him as He is.” Only the pure in heart shall ever see God in Christ.
III. This self-cleansing is the offspring and outcome of the hope referred to in the text.—It is the child of hope. Hope is by no means an active faculty generally; she is not in the way of doing much work in the world. The hope here is a certain kind of hope; it is the hope of being like Jesus Christ. Such a hope fights against the disappointment and depression which are so apt to dishearten us. Here is a test for Christian people who say that they look to heaven with hope as to their home and rest. A great deal of the religious contemplation of a future state is pure sentimentality, and, like all pure sentimentality, is either immoral or non-moral. But here the two things are brought into clear juxtaposition—the bright hope of heaven, and the hard work done here below.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
The Making of Character.—The microscopic creatures, thousands of which will go into a square inch, make the great white cliffs that beetle over the wildest sea and front the storm. So permanent and solid character is built up out of trivial actions; and this is the solemn aspect of our passing days—that they are making us.—Ibid.
The Power of the Christian’s Hope.—It is obvious to observe how the hopes of persons, by degrees, greaten their spirits from their childhood. The proper spirit of a nobleman, a prince, or a king is greater than that of an inferior person. And the reason is, because, as he comes to understand his quality, his spirit grows with his hopes of what he shall attain to; his very hopes greaten his spirit, ennoble him, and make him think of living like one that expects to be in such a state as that to which he is born. And such is the property of the Christian’s hope. It not only makes him not ashamed, but it heightens and ennobles his spirit, makes him aspire high, and look forward to great things.—John Howe.
The Lost Purity restored.—“This hope” is a hope to be with Christ; and as Christ is, in highest verity, the manifestation of God, who is infinite purity, it is a hope to be concomitant with purity, the purity of Christ and of God, which again is but a hope of being entered into, and perfectly answerable to, the purity of God. It follows that every man that hath this hope in him will be purifying himself here on earth even according to the purity of Christ, with whom he hopes to be. Purity of soul is the aim of spiritual redemption, and the legitimate issue of Christian experience.
I. Form a fit conception of what purity is.—It is the character of angels and of God. It is God, as represented here on earth, in the sinless and perfect life of Christ,—His superiority to sense, and passion, and the opinions of the world; His simple devotion to truth; His unambitious goodness; His holy, harmless, undefiled life, as being with, yet separate from, sinners. Take the analogy of the crystal. Purity is, in character, what transparency is in the crystal. Or we may describe purity by reference to contrasts; then it is a character opposite to all sin. It is innocent. It is incorrupt. It is man lifted up out of the mire of sin, washed as a spirit into the clean white love and righteousness of his Redeemer, and so purged of himself as to be man, without anything of the sordid and defiled character of a sinner. Or we may set forth the idea of purity under a reference to the modes of causes. In the world of causes, it is the scientific ideal of purity that events transpire normally, according to the constitutive order and original law of the creation. But as soon as a soul transgresses, it breaks out of order, and its whole internal working becomes mixed, confused, tumultuous, corrupt. Abiding in God, all its internal motions would proceed in the simple, harmonious, orderly progress of the firmament, and it would be a pure soul. Plunging into sin, it breaks order, and falls into mixtures of causes in all its actions. Or we may describe purity absolutely, as it is when viewed in its own positive quality. It is chastity of soul; that state of the spiritual nature in which it is seen to have no contacts or affinities, but such as fall within the circle of unforbidden joy and uncorrupted pleasure. Real chastity puts the soul as truly asunder and apart from the reach of evil suggestion as God Himself is in the glorious chastity of His holiness.
II. It is the aim and purpose of Christian redemption to raise us up into the state of complete purity before God.—It is curious to observe, in Scripture, what an apparatus of cleansing God appears to have set in array for the purification of souls. It would seem, on looking at the manifold array of cleansing elements, applications, gifts, and sacraments, as if God had undertaken it as the great object and crowning mercy of His reign, to effect a solemn purgation of the world. But it may be asked, Is it given to us to attain to a state which can fitly be called purity, or which is to itself a state consciously pure? There is a Christian purity that is related to the soul as investiture. Christ may be so completely put on that the whole consciousness may be of Him, and all the motions of sins give way to the dominating efficacy of His harmonious and perfect mind. Being thus held up by the attachment to him of Christ’s affinities, he is growing like Him—pure as He is pure. Still the body is dead because of sin. Perfect, absolute purity it is hardly supposable may be realised here. Enough to know that there need be no limit to the process of purifying while life remains, and that, when life ends, it may be gloriously approximated to the state of completeness.
III. How may we promote our advancement toward the state of purity?—
1. We must set our heart upon it.
2. Live in Christ, and seek to be as closely and intimately one with Him as possible. This includes—
(1) A willingness to wholly cease from the old man, as corrupt, in order that a completely now man from Christ may be formed in you.
(2) The life must be determined implicitly by the faith of Christ.
(3) The hope of being with Christ is ever an inspiration; of itself it draws the soul towards purity. We are to be much in the meditation of Christ as glorified. We are to be raised by our longings, and purified with Christ by the hopes we rest upon His person.—Horace Bushnell, D.D.
1 John 3:4-5. The Sinlessness of Christ.—In St. John’s day there were men so over-refined and fastidious, that they could not endure the thought of anything spiritual being connected with materialism. They could not believe in anything pure that was also fleshly, for flesh and sinfulness were to them synonymous terms. While admitting the Divinity of Jesus, they denied the reality of His materialism. In this there was an attempt to be eminently spiritual; and, what seems exceedingly marvellous, is the fact withal that these men led a life of extreme licentiousness. But the most spiritual of all the apostles was the one who insisted most earnestly on the materialism of the human nature of our Lord. In the natural propensities of human nature there is nothing to be ashamed of; there is nothing for a man to be ashamed of but sin—there is nothing more noble than a perfect human nature.
I. The sinlessness of our Lord’s nature.—We have a definition of sin. “Sin is the transgression of the law.” There is a difference between sin and transgression. Every sin is a transgression of the law; but every transgression of the law is not a sin. There must be some voluntary act, transgressing some known law, or there is no sin. But there is a law written for the heart, as well as for the outward man; and it is not the outward act that constitutes alone the morality of Christ—it is the feeling of the heart, the acts of the inner man. Some men say, “If the thought is as bad as the act, why should we not do the act? I am as guilty as if I had committed the transgression. Why should I debar myself from the enjoyment?” But that is a sophistry with which no man who has any conscience can deceive himself. Christ was doubly free from sin, as free in desire as He was free in act. The proof of His perfect purity is to be found in the testimony of His enemies, His friends, and those indifferent to Him. There was no actual transgression in our Lord’s life. See too what His inward life was. For there may be no outward transgression, and yet the heart may not be pure. Outwardly all may seem right, through absence of temptation; and yet there may be the want of inward perfection. His mind regulates every other mind; it moves in perfect harmony with the mind of God. In all the just men that ever lived, you will find some peculiarity carried to excess. We note this in the zeal of St. John, in the courage of St. Peter, in the truth-seeking of St. Thomas. It was not so with Jesus; no one department of His human nature ever superseded another: all was harmony there. The one sound which has come down from God in perfect melody is His life, the entire unbroken music of humanity.
II. The power there is in the manifested sinlessness of Jesus to take away the sins of the world.—Consider this
(1) in reference to man;
(2) in reference to God. There is in the eternal constitution of the heavenly government that which makes the life and death of Jesus the atonement for the world’s sins. Human nature, which fell in Adam, rose again in Christ; in Him it became a different thing altogether in God’s sight—redeemed now, hereafter to be perfected. Consider how the world was purified by the change of its own nature. There are three ways by which this may be done—by faith, by hope, by love.
1. It is done by faith, for the most degrading thing in the heart of man is the disbelief in the goodness of human nature. What raises human nature is, faith in the perfect innocence of Jesus.
2. Trust in Divine humanity elevates the soul by hope. Notice the hopefulness of the character of Jesus—His hopefulness for human nature. This hopefulness raises hope in us. We dare to hope for that nature which Jesus loved; we dare to forgive that nature which Jesus condescended to wear.
3. It is done also by love. Hate narrows the heart; love expands the heart. To love is to have almost the power of throwing aside sin. If we would separate the world from sin, and from the penalty of sin, and the inward misery of the heart attendant on sin in this world, and the world to come, it is written in Scripture, “There is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” than the name of Jesus.—F. W. Robertson.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
1 John 3:1. The Privilege of Sonship.—When the Danish missionaries in India appointed some of their Indian converts to translate a catechism, in which it was mentioned as the privilege of Christians to become the sons of God, one of the translators, startled at so bold a saying, as he thought it, said, “It is too much; let me rather render it, ‘They shall be permitted to kiss His feet.’ ”
1 John 3:2. Spiritual Development imperfect now.—If you take a seed that has ripened in Nova Zembla, and bring it into the tropics and plant it, it will not be what it would have been in Nova Zembla, with a short growing season and a scanty supply of food. It will have, with a long summer and an abundant supply, a growth to which no one would suspect it could attain who had only seen it grow in the frigid zones. Many things that are shrubs in the frigid zones, are high, waving, century trees in the tropics. And so men in this life are in conditions which, though fitted to develop the earlier stages of human growth, are not fitted to develop the full estate of that idea which God has expressed in the creation of man.—H. W. Beecher.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
1 John 3:7. Little children.—τεκνία; not infants, but young and immature disciples. Doeth righteousness.—Emphasis lies on “doeth”; habitually does. Doing is opposed to mere profession, mere sentiment, and the moral licence of false doctrine. “There is only one way of proving our enlightenment, of proving our parentage from Him who is the light, and that is by doing the righteousness which is characteristic of Him and His Son.”
1 John 3:8. Of the devil.—Compare John 8:44-49. Dr. Plummer quotes the following suggestive note from St. Augustine: “The devil made no man, begat no man, created no man; but whoso imitates the devil becomes a child of the devil, as if begotten of him. In what sense art thou a child of Abraham? Not that Abraham begat thee. In the same sense as that in which the Jews, the children of Abraham, by not imitating the faith of Abraham, are become children of the devil.” The demonology of the Jews must be taken into due account in explaining the New Testament references to the devil. From the beginning.—A way of saying “always sins.” It is just the one thing he does, and always has been doing. His specific sin is bringing accusations against God, and trying to make men doubt and distrust Him. When there is neither love nor fear of God, sinning becomes easy work. Destroy the works.—This is done by perfecting the reasons for trusting God.
1 John 3:9. Seed remaineth in him.—The germ of new life from God. “Every one that has been made, and that remains, a child of God.” For “born” R.V. reads “begotten” (John 1:13). “The whole analogy refers to human generation.” Cannot sin.—Not if the new life is alive in him. The new life wants submission and obedience; it never wants wilfulness.
1 John 3:10. Loveth not his brother.—The new life in Christ as naturally finds expression in service to the brethren as it does in obedience to the Father. The new birth is birth into a family, and a family life and duty.
1 John 3:11. Message.—Commandment (John 15:12).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 3:7-12
Doing Righteousness.—This appears to be the expression of a sudden thought that came to St. John. We have often to notice how the apostolic writers are turned aside from their main line of argument by some sudden thought which seizes them. This indeed is a common peculiarity of what we properly call “uneducated,” “untrained” writers and preachers. Some of their best things come as “asides.” St. John has been dealing with high sentiment. Perhaps he feared that what he had said belonged to too high a range, and therefore might be misconceived, misrepresented, and misused. Religion has both its mystical and its practical side. The mystical may be most pleasing and satisfying to ourselves; the practical is the most important, and the most honouring, to Christ. Emotions do not glorify our Divine Lord as righteousness does. Sometimes the religion of Christ is represented as being doctrinal and sentimental. And so it is. But it is also, and even yet more truly, ethical, and practical, and social. Its key-note no one need misapprehend: “He that doeth righteousness is righteous.” Christ’s own teachings were distinctly ethical. Apostolic teachings were very largely practical. In the dark ages Christianity was the humanising force. The gospel of Christ is civilising heathendom. Back of literature, and philanthropy, and sociology, to-day, lie the great Christian truths and principles. What God provides for the redemption of the world is—
(1) the salt of Christian character;
(2) the leaven of Christian principle;
(3) the inspiration of the Christian motive. Christ has a sociology, but it is a set of living principles, not an elaborated system. Each age must make its own elaboration.
I. A mistake often made by the early Christian disciples.—It concerned righteousness. This surprises us, because Christ’s teachings about righteousness seem to us so clear. Trace the rise of the Antinomian spirit in—
(1) the misuse of the doctrine of election;
(2) of present salvation;
(3) of the new life. The truth is that the Church has always to guard against this evil. There is ever creeping in a subtle idea of a difference between a Christian’s sins and other people’s sins. To live up to the full expression of Christian principle in their old heathen surroundings must have been difficult for the early Christians, and we may pity them. We need not wonder that some of them said, “Why should we try?” or that some of them easily found reasons why they should not try. It was easy to urge that the new life was a spiritual thing, and therefore entirely independent of its material surroundings. Even nowaday—
(1) feeling is regarded as more satisfying than righteousness;
(2) knowledge is regarded as more important than righteousness;
(3) morality is confused with righteousness;
(4) ceremonial is put instead of righteousness. Indeed, the mistake is wont to take such subtle forms that it may have found out how to master even us. We may be sure of this: righteousness is rightness, in view of—
(1) God’s claims;
(2) Christ’s example;
(3) the possibilities of service to our fellows.
II. The apostolic correction of the mistake.—It was the aged apostle’s most anxious fear that the religion of his disciples might evaporate in sentiment. Therefore he lays so much stress on doing righteousness. Righteousness is the expression of right feeling. And right feeling can never exist without wanting to get expression. Quickened germs in the soil are sure to show blades above the soil. Righteousness toward God is doing. Righteousness toward man is doing. Good feeling wants expression. Knowledge wants service. Resolve wants sphere of operation. And none of these are righteousness so long as they stand alone. Does then the Divine acceptance rest upon the doing? No; let us never make that mistake. It rests on the righteousness which finds expression in the doing. Understand what righteousness is. It is the objective of faith; it is the operative of the new life; it is its activity in its relations. Everything that lives does something. Life escapes you. You can see what life does. A Christian lives: then he does righteousness. Where then is the place for Christian sentiment and feeling? It is the inspiration, and the tone, of the doing.
III. The basis on which the apostolic correction rests.—God the Father, or Christ the Song of Song of Solomon 1:0. Essential to the thought of God is activity. God’s righteousness is doing. Conceive of God as non-operating goodness, and He is but a silent, mysterious Brahm—nothing really, nothing helpfully, to you.
2. Christ’s righteousness is doing. Conceive Christ as only cherishing good sentiments, never “going about doing good,” and He becomes nothing helpfully to you—only, in some sense, a hermit Antony, or a St. Simeon Stylites. Our models of righteousness are distinctly practical.
Apply in our several spheres:
(1) Righteousness as our personal characteristic;
(2) as the life of our home relations;
(3) as the life of our business scenes;
(4) as the life of our Church fellowships;
(5) as the life of our social intercourse. Everywhere we want “righteousness”; and everywhere, “he that doeth righteousness is righteous,” even as God is righteous, even as Christ is righteous.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 3:7. The Practical Character of Righteousness.—“He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous.” It is clear that emphasis is to be placed on doing, as contrasted with professing, or with talking. A man is according to what he does, because in a genuine man the doing is the natural sign and expression of himself. William Jay used to say, “Do not tell me what a man said when he lay on his dying-bed: tell me how he lived.” And it is equally clear that fearless appeal can be made to the practical character of the human righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no possibility of imagining that Christ’s righteousness was mere sentimentality or profession. Nor can a righteousness of talk gain any support from our Lord’s teachings, the key-note of which is this, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” And there is another point suggested by the form of the original word translated “doeth.” It means, “he who habitually does righteousness.” And precisely in that we have the inspiring example of Christ.
1 John 3:8. Christ’s Work on the Devil’s Works.—“That He might destroy the works of the devil.” The works of the devil are here described as “doing sin.” The work of the devil in man is making him do sin. The “devil sinneth”—that is his characteristic work. “He that doeth sin is of the devil,” belongs to the same class, has the same characteristic. The contrast is with the “doing righteousness” of 1 John 3:7. To put the distinction in language more familiar to us, we may say: He that pleases himself, and serves his own ends, is of the devil; he belongs to the devil-class. He that denies himself, and serves his conviction of what is right, is of God, and belongs to the Christ-class of obedient, and loyal, and loving sons. Then we can readily perceive how Christ’s work must destroy the devil’s work. Let Christ bring us into obedient sonship, and we shall only want to do righteousness.
1 John 3:9. The Divine Seed in Man.—The Greek father, Justin Martyr, seems to have found the figure in this text specially suggestive, and his elaboration of it may help our apprehension. He says that “the truths in the utterances of heathen philosophy and poetry are due, to the fact that a seed of the Word is implanted, or rather, inborn, ἔμφυτον, in every race of men. Those who grasped the truth lived according to “a part of the seminal Word,” even as Christians live “according to the knowledge and contemplation of the whole Word, that is Christ.” They “nobly uttered what they saw akin to the part of the Divine seminal Word which they had received.”
“His seed remaineth in him.”—The following Bible writers suggest explanations of this very difficult expression:—Bengel: “In eo, qui genitus est ex Deo, manet semen Dei, i.e. verbum, cum sua virtute (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18). Quamvis peccatum sæpe furioso impetu conetur prosternere renatum. Vel potius sic: Semen Dei, i.e. is, qui natus est ex Deo, manet in Deo.” Webster and Wilkinson: “σπέρμα is understood to be the Word of God (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18), or the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). We may explain it of the principle of Divine life implanted in the soul, which renders us θείας κοινωνοὺς φύσεως (2 Peter 1:4). That which originates also maintains (μένει) his filial relation to God; and he who is in this relation to God cannot lead a sinful life.” Alford: “Because that new principle of life from which his new life has unfolded, which was God’s seed deposited in him, abides growing there, and precludes the development of the old sinful nature.” By the seed Alford understands the word, the utterance of God, dropped into the soul of man. Matthew Henry calls the seed the “spiritual seminal principle remaining in him.” Fausset calls the seed “the living word of God, made by the Holy Spirit the seed in us of a new life.” Sinclair says: “The 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.”
12. Cain, the Unloving Brother.—The reference to Cain is singularly appropriate, because the controlling thought in St. John’s mind is, that if a man really loves God, he will be sure to love his brother also; and if a man is found not to be loving his brother, we may be confidently sure that he does not love God. There are two distinct phases of conduct manifest in the record concerning Cain. We see what he was toward God, and find no sign of any inspiration of personal love to God. We see what he was toward his brother, and find no sign of that self-denying brotherly love which alone sanctifies family life, and expresses the common love of the father. That the unrighteousness of Cain is here exhibited as the ground of his hatred to his brother is altogether in harmony with the Old Testament record. For there we see that the motive of his hatred to Abel was his envy, because Abel was more acceptable to God, but this latter was founded in the “good work” of Abel, which was wanting in Cain. St. John does not speak of the μισεῖν of Cain, but of the σφάζειν in which that hatred found expression; for he is treating generally of the outward evidence of the internal disposition, through which outward evidence the internal disposition appears manifestly and uncontrovertibly to the man himself. But St. John does not present the fratricide of Cain only as one individual result of the general unrighteousness of his works, but rather as specifically evoked by the opposite character of the works of Abel. As everywhere, so here also evil is brought to its full maturity by means of juxtaposition with the light, which reveals its character, and makes it truly dark. The wicked man, who feels himself miserable at heart, grudges the good man the blessedness he has in his righteousness, and therefore has the disposition to rob him of it by annihilating the good himself. As it is in the nature of the devil, so it is in the nature of the child of the devil; they are alike ἀνθρωποκτόνοι. And the mention here of envy as the cause of the murder accords with the record of Genesis: Cain was urged to his sinful act by knowing that his offering was not acceptable to God, while his brother’s was acceptable.—Eric Haupt.
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
1 John 3:7. Christian Righteousness.—Do not fancy that Christian righteousness is different from ordinary “goodness,” except as being broader and deeper, more thorough-going, more imperative. The precepts of the one, like some rock-hewn inscriptions by forgotten kings, are weathered and indistinct, often illegible, often misread, often neglected. The other is written in living characters in a perfect life.—A. Maclaren, D.D.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
1 John 3:13. World hate yon.—The “world” includes all who are not actuated by the supreme motive, love to God. For “hate” read “hateth” (John 15:18).
1 John 3:14. From death unto life.—Death is spiritual death in selfishness. Life is spiritual life in love for others, which finds expression in serving others.
1 John 3:15. Is a murderer.—With distinct allusion to the case of Cain. “The first and the worst effect of hatred gives it its true character.”
1 John 3:16.—Read, “Hereby know we love.” Lay down our lives.—The figure of self-surrender, reaching to the limits of self-sacrifice.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 3:13-17
A Sure Sign of the Regenerate Life.—It is such a love of the brethren as leads us to self-denial and service for the sake of securing their highest well-being. That man must be “born again,” he must be a new man, other than the unnatural being which sin and self have made him, who really cares for his brother in such a way as enables him to give up his own things for his sake. The principal word in this paragraph is “hate,” “hateth”; and it is evidentally intended to stand in absolute contrast with “love.” But the word has undergone such change in meaning since it was used by the Bible translators, and even in their time it so imperfectly represented the Scriptural term, that the precise meaning and thought of St. John readily escapes the reader of his epistle. “Hate” is often the equivalent of our word “despise,” or pass aside, show yourself indifferent to, count as a thing of little value. Sometimes it means scarcely more than, “put down into quite a secondary place of interest.” In something of this sense it is said of God, that He “loved Jacob, and hated Esau.” What we have in modern times imported into the word is bitter, personal feeling, and that complicates our treatment of such expressions as are found in this paragraph. “To hate” is not always to be understood rigorously. It frequently signifies no more than a lesser degree of love (Deuteronomy 21:15). If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, that means less beloved. So our Saviour says that he who would follow Him must hate father and mother—that is, he should love them less than Christ, less than his own salvation. Solomon says, “He that spareth the rod hateth his son” (Proverbs 13:24). Fathers often spare their children out of an excessive love to them; but this is not a proper instance of affection, to forbear correcting them; their fond affection is as pernicious to their children as other men’s hatred could be. There is also a malicious hatred of men referred to in Scripture—as in Ahab, who hated the Lord’s prophet, Micaiah (1 Kings 22:8). Wicked men do, in this sense, hate the righteous (Psalms 34:21). It may also be added, that there is a hatred of the sins of men (Jude 1:23), and of our own sins (Romans 7:15). Taking the milder connotation of the term “hate,” let us see if we can understand, and get the precise teaching of, this paragraph.
I. The sphere of hate that may reasonably be expected.—1 John 3:13 : “Marvel not, brethren, if the world hateth you,” is indifferent to you, takes no interest in you, and even scorns you as enthusiasts. It is quite true that the world shows positive enmity to God’s people, and is, and ever has been, ready on occasions to persecute them; but we miss a point of much direct application to us, when we dwell too much on the active persecution to which Christ’s Church has at times been subjected. The indifference of the world, the scorn of the world, is constantly felt, and constantly wearing our hearts. Everywhere earnest piety is spoken against. It is the hate of the world in that sense—the society indifference which we are told should be expected, and should occasion no surprise. Our Lord impressed on His disciples that being, like Himself, “not of the world,” the world would be sure to hate them. Then this should be no occasion of anxiety to us. In entering on the regenerate life we should take account of it, and then it will not come on us as a surprise, or be in any sense a painful and trying experience. We may so satisfy ourselves with God’s approval, that we can be easily indifferent to the World’s. God’s world is kin with us; man’s world never can be.
II. The sphere of hate that is wholly unexpected, and cannot be approved.—1 John 3:15 : “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.” This is true when applied generally to the brotherly relations of man with man—true in the same sense as the saying that “sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Push hatred out to its utmost, and it appears as murder, as is illustrated in the case of Cain. But St. John here is distinctly addressing those who have the new life in Christ, and are thus set in new and gracious relations one with another. What he says is that hate, even in its milder form as indifference, is inconceivable among the members of the Christian brotherhood. In them the great human law, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” ought to be ennobled into this, “For Christ’s sake thou shalt love thy Christian brother better than thyself, and be always going out beyond thyself in loving ministries and service to him.” Then St. John’s point may be sharply presented in this contrast, “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you; but marvel much, my brethren, if you are found hating one another, even if it be only in the mild sense of being indifferent to one another, and loving yourselves better than your brethren.”
III. The mastery of unloving thoughts concerning our brethren is gained through the service of love.—1 John 3:16-17 : “We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this World’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?” The point is this—Do nothing for your brother, and you will find you very readily become heedless of him, indifferent to his interests, you may even come to dislike and hate him; but do something for him, tend him, spend yourself for him, give up something of your own to secure his well-being, imperil your life for him, and you will be surprised how love to him grows in your heart, how easy then it is to “love the brethren.” Activity of ministry keeps up the love, and delivers from all evil feelings. You never can hate people whom you are actively serving for Christ’s sake.
The love of the brethren is—
1. A peculiar and most appropriate kind of love:
(1) there is a general love, which we owe to every man;
(2) there is a particular love, which Christians owe to their fellow-believers.
2. Free from all dissimulation.
3. Fixed and fervent, invariable in its operations, and disinterested and fearless on all occasions. This sort of love was shown by John towards Christ, by the early Galatian converts towards Paul, and by Onesiphorus to the same apostle.—F. Gilpin.
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 3:10. Love seen in Self-sacrifice.—“And we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Laying down life is the extreme expression of self-sacrifice. We may give up our time, our personal interests, our possessions, our health, in the service of others, and these are beautiful and persuasive expressions of the Christly love. But that love does not reach its perfection, its full flowering, until, in the spirit of the Lord Jesus, we are prepared to imperil, and even lay down, our lives for the saving of others. Love in self-sacrifice is seen in the home and family life. It may be that we expect it in father and mother; but where there is a fulness of family love we find it in the brothers and sisters. They will spend themselves for each other’s well-being. They will imperil life for each other’s sakes. And it should be thus in the family of God, among the regenerate sons, who have become, in the very highest sense, brothers. It is not often that the extreme demand is made. But seldom now does the service of Christ call for the laying down of life. Yet the persuasion of St. John will come home to us if we see that laying down life is the extreme limit, and that love can be shown in everything that has the spirit of sacrifice and service, which comes short of the limit. Therefore Christ set before us the extreme opposite limit, telling us that love could go into the little act of sacrifice, the little trouble and inconvenience in giving a cup of water to a disciple. The essence of a love-gift is the self-denial that is in it. And there is nothing so sweetens, so beautifies, so dignifies our various human associations as the love which can deny self, in order to serve others. That is artistically, ideally, presented to us in Mary’s bringing the alabaster box of precious ointment to pour upon the Saviour’s feet. It was a love-gift with a woman’s uttermost self-sacrifice at the heart of it. That is sublimely, divinely, presented to us, in the uttermost self-sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, as the persuasion of the “so great love” He had for us.
“For love of us He bled; for love of us He died.”
ILLUSTRATIONS TO CHAPTER 3
1 John 3:16. Laying down Life for the sake of Another.—Two men were working together in a mine, and having prepared to blast the rock, and laid the train, the latter became by accident ignited. In a few moments a tremendous explosion they knew was inevitable, and the rock must be rent in a thousand pieces. On perceiving their danger, they both leaped into the bucket, and called to the man on the surface to draw them up. He endeavoured to do so, but his arm was found too feeble to raise the bucket while both the men were in it. What was to be done? The burning fuse, which could not be extinguished, was now within a few feet of the powder; a moment or two, and the explosion must take place. At this awful crisis, one of the men, addressing the other, said, “You shall live, and I will die; for you are an impenitent sinner, and if you now die your soul will be lost; but if I die, I know that, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, I shall be taken to Himself.” And so saying, without waiting for a reply, he leaped out of the bucket, and prayerfully awaited the result. On the other reaching the surface, he bent over the shaft to ascertain the fate of his companion. At this moment a terrific explosion was heard; a portion of the rock was thrown up, and smote him on the forehead, leaving an indelible mark to remind him of his danger and deliverance. But the man of God, when they came to search for him, was found arched over by the fragments of broken rock in the mine, uninjured and rejoicing in the Lord. This magnanimous miner exhibited in this act an amount of disinterested love and charity which has seldom been equalled, and which is never found but in connection with the love of Christ.—R. Young.
Self-sacrifice: the Pilot of the “Rothesay.”—This vessel was wrecked in a cyclone in the Indian Ocean. The pilot, Paul Elson, collected a few volunteers, and rigged a raft. Thirteen only of the crew got on her; the rest were frantic with terror—some praying, others drunk, others raving, others lashed inextricably to the sinking vessel. Elson was the last to leave the ship; leaping overboard, he swam to the raft, cut the hawser that held her, and constituted himself by inherent right her sole officer. Within an hour the doomed vessel heeled, lurched heavily, and went down head first. All that day and all that night the raft drifted, heavy seas breaking over her. “We were up to our necks in water,” says the man who tells the tale, “for she floated low.” All that night, nevertheless, Elson, who was a powerful swimmer, swam round and round the raft, lashing her together and strengthening her as best he could. Ever and anon the furious breakers washed a man off. And then would the brave pilot who had not only the heart but the strength of a gaint, strike out towards him and carry the drowning wretch back. But at last it became apparent that the raft must be broken up, and that a second and smaller raft must be constructed to relieve the other. This, too, the pilot effected almost single-handed. The large raft floated away into the night; Elson and three other men took to the smaller; while on the other drifted away a native boy, Paul Elson’s servant, of whom hitherto, in the midst of all his terrible toil, the brave pilot had never once lost sight. “He kept near him; he tended him as a mother would tend her child; he gave him our last supply of drinkable water.” The vessel had sunk on the 29th of July; it was now the 2nd of August. The raft was drifting under a raging tropical sun; for three days there had been no food or water; worse than this, the frail support itself began to break up, and swimming about in a heavy surf, Paul Elson became much exhausted. The end of course could not now be far off. First one of the men was washed away, and then another, until Elson himself and the Scotchman who tells the story were the sole survivors. “ ‘Pilot,’ said I”—so the narrative runs—“ ‘we must fight it through!’ ‘Oh, Fraser!’ answered he, ‘I can’t hold out any longer.’ … Then a heavy sea broke upon us, and knocked him off. I found it impossible to hang on, and was forced to let him go.” And so the story ends. The body of Pilot Elson, worn out by his incessant labours, floats away into the great deep, there to lie till the sea shall give up its dead.—Daily Telegraph.
CRITICAL AND EXEGETICAL NOTES
1 John 3:18. In word.—Profession, mere boasting. True love finds expression in service. “St. John hints that there is some danger of this conventionality amongst his friends, and earnestly exhorts them to genuineness.”
1 John 3:20. Heart condemn.—There are always sensitive souls, who are much too ready to think evil of themselves, and distress themselves with their evil-thinking. Better never attempt to appraise our own spiritual life and progress; leave it with God, and bend all attention on further progressing.
1 John 3:22. Whatsoever we ask.—Not whatsoever anybody asks. The promise is limited to those who are in the full privilege, power, and holiness of sonship. We receive because we are the Father’s children.
1 John 3:23. His commandment.—One but inclusive, so as to appear as two. Believe.—Not by a mere act of faith, but by a continuous daily trusting, which kept up vital relations. Love one another.—The certain outward sign of our loving and trusting Christ.
1 John 3:24. Dwelleth in Him.—Better use St. John’s favourite word “abideth.” Spirit.—Which St. Paul represents as the “earnest” and the “seal.” “The Spirit Himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God.”
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—1 John 3:18-24
Assuring our Hearts.—Christian assurance, the confidence that we have passed from death unto life, the restfulness of knowing that we are reconciled to God, and are in a gracious standing with Him, is not only desirable, it is even necessary, if we are to live earnest Christian lives, free from the fret and worry of a continual uncertainty. It is not “a point we should long to know”; it ought not to “cost us anxious thought.” It should be a settled thing; the evidences should be clear and sufficient. It should keep a settled thing, for the evidences should be maintained, and should be effectively persuasive upon us day by day. And it must be fully understood that assurance is attainable. It is often sought in wrong ways, through some particular setting of belief, on some minor point of Christian truth, or through some definite phase of religious feeling. St. John delivers us from these mistaken ideas when he sets before us the true grounds on which our hearts may be assured before God.
I. We know that we have passed from death unto life, if we are living a life of active charity and service to others. Then there must have come a change over us; we must be other than our old selves. Everybody looks after his own interests first. Everybody except the man with the new life in Christ; and he looks after Christ’s interests first, other people’s interests next, and his own interests last. “He is not his own.” “To Him to live is Christ.” Or to put it in another form, the service of brotherhood is the satisfying proof of the sonship.
II. We know, by our inner life of soul-culture. “If our heart condemn us not, we have boldness towards God.” It is true that the witness of our heart is not always reliable, and we sometimes have to appeal to God against our own hearts. We often have to when by our hearts we mean only our feelings. But understand that our soul-culture is meant, the growth, under all holy influences, of the spiritual life that has been quickened, and then we may see that our hearts can bring us assurance. Their growth in trust, joy, love, hope, says continually that we must be standing in the full saving relations.
III. We know, through our experiences of answer to prayer. The psalmist persuaded himself that he must be standing in the love of God, for he says, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” This is a way of regarding our answers to prayer, of which sufficient is not made. We think too much of what we get in such answers. We think too little of what is involved in our being answered at all. Our Lord Jesus said to His Father, “I know that Thou hearest Me always.” His assurance rested on His being in such full acceptance with the Father. And if God hears us always, we also may be quite sure that we stand in full acceptance with Him.
IV. We know, by the sense we have of God’s relationship to us. He hath “sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts,” and we feel His Fatherhood. We “abide in Him,” as sons do in the father. He “abides in us,” as fathers do in their sons. The supreme fact concerning us is, that we are “sons of God.” And the assurance that we are is found in our peculiar and characteristic apprehension of God.
V. We know, by the inward impulse of the Spirit. “Hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He gave us.” God is never anywhere as an inactive Being. The quiescent Brahm is man’s conception, not God’s revelation, of Himself. Wherever He is, He is active. If He is in the soul of man, if He is in our soul, then He is active; and the movings and the impulses of the Spirit are His activity; and through those impulses we are assured that He is abiding in us. Assurances based on such grounds as these are altogether healthy, ennobling, and inspiring; and thus we may all “assure our hearts.”
SUGGESTIVE NOTES AND SERMON SKETCHES
1 John 3:18. Profession and Practice.—“My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” St. John is so full of the family feeling, and uses so constantly the family figures, that we are tempted to think he must have been a family man, centre of a happy family circle. It may, however, only be that he was saturated with the idea of Christ’s Sonship, and that gave tone and colour to every setting of truth and persuasion of duty. The term “little children” here is used in a general sense of the believers, but it suggests the simplicity, humility, and receptiveness which ought to be their characteristics. In the teaching of this text, as in so many other cases, St. John shows how he had been influenced by the teachings of his Divine Master, and did but reproduce them, bearing a certain impress from his own thought and experience. The best illustrations of our text, and of the duty enjoined in it, may be gained by showing how much our Lord made of doing His will—not knowing it merely, not talking about it only, but really doing it in the energetic endeavour of a life of service and charity.
I. The connection of “doing” with “knowing” is characteristic of Christ’s teachings.—We find it constantly made the topic of His parables. In that of the “ten talents,” the Master is represented as expecting, and properly expecting, that the servants who know His will shall be doing, and multiply their talent-trusts by wise trading. In that of the “husbandman,” we find the Lord of the vineyard sending yearly for his proportion of the fruits of the husbandman’s toils. In that of the “sower and the seed,” the farmer looks for a return of his labour and expenditure, hoping to reap thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold of what the soil has done. The “barren fig tree” is represented as reasonably cut down, because it did nothing in response to all the efforts made to urge it to well-doing. In the parable of the “judgment,” the Divine approval is given to those who did something, who did “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction”; and the Divine indignation rests on those who knew, who could, yet who did nothing that was merciful and unselfish. Our Lord even exhibits this necessity for doing in His own life and conduct. Anticipating the life, as a twelve-year-old boy, He said, “Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” Of Him it could be said, “He went about doing good.” At Jacob’s well, though weary with His journey, He roused Himself to talk to the Samaritan woman, when the opportunity for doing His Father’s will was presented to Him. He could not be satisfied with only talking about the Father, though that was so often the duty of the hour. He could say, “My meat and My drink is to do the will of My Father.” And at the close of His life, He could cherish no nobler thought of the life He had lived than this, “I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.” His direct teachings bore on the same subject—the supreme importance of doing as well as knowing, doing as well as feeling. “He that heareth these sayings of Mine, and doeth them.” “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.” “He that doeth the will of God … the same is My brother, and and sister, and mother.” “Yea, blessed are they that hear the word, and do it.” “Why call ye Me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” He told us that we can always judge things and persons by their “fruits”—that is, by what they do. He likened His disciples to “salt,” which does something, savours and seasons; to a “light,” which does something, shines in the room, and enables those present to see their work; to a “city set on a hill,” which does something, acts as a beacon to guide pilgrims on their journey across the broad plain. As if to leave a last impression on those disciples, our Lord rose from His place at the last meal with them, took a towel, girded Himself, and reaching the ewer and basin, did the servant’s work, pouring water over the feet of those disciples, and wiping them with the towel wherewith He was girded. And then, returning to His seat, He solemnly said, “Know ye what I have done unto you? Ye call Me Master and Lord; and ye say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you. If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them.” Our Lord showed no sort of fear that doing would nourish a legal spirit, or tempt men to make their good works a ground of acceptance with God. His earnestness shows His sense of our graver danger. We are all much more likely to satisfy ourselves with professions, and to become only good-looking, leafy fig trees, on which, when He draweth nigh in His hunger, He can find no figs. Our peril is, that we may be induced to sever asunder what God has joined together, “knowing” and “doing,” and so be like the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. Doing put in place of Christ is always wrong. Doing for Christ’s sake is always right.
II. The connection of “doing” with “knowing” which both Christ and His apostles taught, is still absolutely necessary.—
1. It is needed to satisfy us, and others, of the reality of our piety. For that piety is like a seed; and if it be not a worthless seed, if there be any real germ of life in that seed, it will do something; it will crack the soil; it will send a green blade forth; it will show itself to the light. A seed that does nothing is worth nothing. A Christian who does nothing is worth nothing before God or men. Indeed, nobody can see anything that is gained by his calling himself a Christian. Let us be quite sure of this, and let us keep the thought ever present before us—men expect to see our religion influencing our conduct. We expect this in others, and are hard upon them if we cannot find their piety in their every-day relations. We may well be reminded, that the people about us are looking at our doings, and will speak dishonouring things of our Lord Christ, if they cannot see His spirit in all our relationships. Solemnly let us say to one another—No creed, however correct it may be, will ever make up, before God, or before men, for unsubdued tempers, unrestrained habits, tyranny at home, offences given abroad, self-indulgences, or neglect of the sick whom we might visit, the poor whom we might feed, or the naked whom we might clothe. Search and see what personal satisfactions you can gain as you compare your “knowing” with your “doing,” your “profession” with your “practice.” Inquire and see whether there is abroad, among those whom you have to do with day by day, an impression which leads them to say concerning you, “Well reported of for good works.” Would the widows and the poor folk come about your house, if you lay dead, showing the coats and garments which you made, as they came crowding round the house of Dorcas, that early Christian woman, who was full of good works and alms-deeds that she did?
2. It is necessary in order to prove the truth of Christianity itself. This system of religion makes marvellous pretensions. It is the last and highest revelation of God to men: it is the supreme remedy for the deepest human sorrows. It is God’s own sunshine to bring spring-time life to an earth lying cold and dead in the long winter of sin. But how shall it support the pretensions? Only by living examples of its power—only as the men and women who profess to have received the life in Christ do something. Experiment tests everything. Constantly fresh experiments are needed. Select a few professsing Christians. See what they are doing. Do not fear to apply the test—judge Christianity by its fruits. In every age it has stood this test. When all the great arguments and evidences have wearied us, we may say—See what Christianity has done. The spirit-possessed, the blind, the lame, the drunkard, the strong-tempered, the selfish, all have been changed; and the charity of the world is to-day in the hands of those who are constrained by the love of Christ. If you would prove to all around you the truth of Christianity, use argument and evidence with all wisdom, as far as ever you can; but this, above everything else, we would say to you—Show men what it can do. Men may resist eloquence; they may even refute reasoning; they may deny your evidences; but they cannot resist the power of goodness. It is like leaven, and, unbeknown, it leavens. It is like the morning light. It peeps above the eastern ridge, flinging great lines of glory up the sky. The night darkness does not like it, but it must feel it. That darkness will have to fly; for the morning light will grow in power until it makes the shadowless noonday.
1 John 3:22-23. Keeping God’s Commandments.—This position taken by St. John is but putting in Christian form the universal condition on which Divine favour must rest. It is declared in the most general way that “the Lord is far from the wicked, but He heareth the prayer of the righteous” (Proverbs 15:29). And in his gospel St. John represents the people as arguing about Christ on the basis of commonly received principles and opinions: “We know that God heareth not sinners: but if a man be a worshipper of God, and do His will [keep His commandments], him He heareth” (John 9:31).
I. Keeping commandments may be regarded as acts of obedience. It is seldom seen with sufficient clearness that moral training, for the child or the child-nation, must necessarily begin with formal acts of obedience. The child must do what it is told to do. Israel must obey the elaborate ten laws of Sinai in the actual details of every-day life and relationship. And even Christian life properly begins in formal acts of obedience.
II. Keeping commandments may be regarded as the expression of sonship.—The true child in a home never tries to obey; he obeys without trying, because obedience is the natural and proper spirit of sonship. Some alien force must be influencing a child if he does not obey. Let a man be born of God, his new life will certainly express itself in keeping God’s commandments.
III. Keeping commandments may be tested by the obedience of two commandments (1 John 3:23).—
1. Our belief in the Son-name of Jesus. There is no point of persuasion if St. John is assumed to be referring to saving faith in Christ, or to faith in Him as Messiah. It must never be lost from view that he is writing to professing Christians, to those who have the life in Christ. He is writing to them about the higher life. What Christians are called by God to do is to believe in the Sonship of Christ, in Him as the Son of God, and in all that such belief involves concerning the actual Fatherly relations of God. If this be the test commandment, how sinful is the hesitation of Christians to receive the full revelation of the Sonship!
2. Our love for those who are our brothers because they are with us sons, through the Son-name of Jesus.
1 John 3:24. The Spirit’s Inward Witness.—“And hereby we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He gave us.” There are two witnesses to our standing before God, to our son-ship in Christ with the eternal Father. There is the witness of our own spirit, and there is the witness of the Holy Ghost; but the testimony of the Holy Ghost is an inward witness, given through the spirit of the man.
I. The witness of our own spirit to our having the Father, and being sons.—It may be asked, Whence comes the assurance of our sonship to our human parents? Whence that spirit of restfulness and satisfaction in our relationship which we felt so strongly when we dwelt at home, and which we have even now, though far away from home, or though even the old home has been broken up, and those who made it so dear have passed away? There is a witness of our own spirit. That spirit tells us it holds cherished memories of home life and joys. Our spirit reminds us that, when utterly helpless, a mother’s bosom was our resting-place; broken rest was thought but little of by her; daily trouble seemed no weight to her, for the greatness of the mother-love she bore us. Our spirit tells us that the love which testified itself in such ways then has been a growing love, ever finding new, tender, and wonderful ways of expression. The testimony of our own spirit about the past is one great assurance of our sonship. But the inward witness tells of more than this; it speaks of our own views, ideas, affections, and emotions. Our spirit bids us see, that towards our father we feel a kind of respect and reverence, and towards our mother we have affections and emotions, which we need some new, and almost heaven-born, word to express. Our spirit testifies to a deference to their opinion, a desire to please them, a willingness to obey them, and a confidence in them, which is the most certain inward witness of our sonship. We are quite satisfied and happy; it is the testimony of our own spirit that we are the children of these parents, and that we are preserving our relationship. So we might ask, What is our assurance that we are children of this beloved England? Do we need to appeal to Magna Charta? or must we anxiously collect and examine the birth, marriage, and death certificates of our ancestry? Surely not. We are abundantly satisfied with the testimony of our own spirit that we have the English thought, and the English ways and habits; and that, in the temper of the child, we are obeying England’s laws, and glorying in her dignities and privileges. This seems to be very plain. And in this way there is a testimony of our own spirit to the reality of sonship with God. Inquire of your own spirit. Is there not cherished in it a memory, a thought—cherished in its very holiest place—of the wonderful love of God in Christ to you: a memory of a great gift, the offering of saving love and pity, once made for you? Does not your spirit tell you it has a most hallowed, inner shrine, and in that shrine you keep the memory of that ever-blessed One, whose beautiful life of heavenly, divine charities closed so sadly, so shamefully, in a death that won life and heaven for you? Does not your spirit tell how that shrine has been opened in the hours of silent meditation, and sweetest odours of infinite love have streamed forth, making fragrant all the temple of your soul? Does not your spirit tell that the memory and the thought of Christ exercise continual power upon you, swaying your nature as with the might of some great principle? If then your spirit has such things as these to tell you, may you not be sure that this is like the child’s memory of parental love?—it is the pledge of your sonship; it is the witness of your own spirit that you are the child of God. But beyond this witness of a cherished memory, our spirit gives testimony to our sonship with God in our views, feelings, dispositions, and in the spirit and conduct of our life. Our spirit renders witness to us of the reality of the great spiritual change that has been wrought in us. Our hearts will tell us whether we are the same now that we were some ten or twenty years ago, or it may be even a few months since. As we set our old life, in its principle and in its spirit, over against our present life, in its principle and in its spirit, we are sensible of a most decided contrast, which cannot possibly be explained by the mere fact of our having grown older. As we compare the things which we loved and sought in those old days with the things we are loving and seeking now, we say—Our present life is not indeed what we would have it to be; still it is different, most manifestly different. “We were sometime darkness, now are we light in the Lord.” Our own spirit testifies within us to the change. Our own spirit witnesses also to a new view of God, and of the relation in which we stand to Him. Our own spirit witnesses to our thinking differently now of goodness and of holiness. Goodness was the highest conception we once could reach, and we meant by it, ordering our life within certain prescribed limits. That has given place to a conception of the claims of holiness; by which we mean a life in conformity with the will of God—a life informed and possessed with the spirit of allegiance, devotion, and love to Him.
II. The witness of the Holy Spirit to our sonship with God.—That Spirit works through the testimony that is given by our spirit. The Holy Ghost does not give oral testimony; He does not speak even by “a still small voice,” caught only by the attentive ear. He does not come with observation, in extraordinary and overwhelming manifestation. He comes as a silent, secret, inward, Divine force of life, strengthening and renewing those who are good and pure in heart and purpose; He comes purifying, perfecting, guiding the witness of our own spirit. In two ways we may recognise the concurring witness of the Holy Spirit and our spirit. We, with our whole powers of spirit, seek to know the mind and will of God, as they have been revealed to us in His word. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to gain true apprehensions, and to lay personal hold of the truths and promises it contains. He leads into all truth. And we, with our whole power of spirit, seek to cherish all godly emotions, and, in bringing forth good fruit, to live the godly life. It is the Holy Spirit who quickens those emotions, and all the fruits we can produce are but varieties of the “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and patience,” which we know are the immediate fruits of the Spirit. We might with truth say, “I live, yet not I, the Holy Ghost liveth in me.” It is the recognition of this inner life, the consciousness of this Divine indwelling, which brings rest and peace, and the impulse to nobler things, to the Christian.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 John 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29