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1 John 3

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New TestamentSchaff's NT Commentary

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Verse 1

1 John 3:1. Behold! as an exclamation, and thus standing alone, occurs only here. It is the tranquil expression of adoring wonder. What manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us: this expression also is peculiar. It is the kind of love that is meant, not its greatness, nor its unmerited goodness. The gift of love, nowhere else said to be given, should not be limited in meaning to demonstration or proof or token: it is love itself which is made ours; and as this gift is hereafter bound up with the mission of the Son, being indeed jealously restrained to the atonement as its channel, we must needs think here of that, though unexpressed. ‘Herein is love.’

That we should be called children of God; and such we are. ‘God’ indeed ‘so loved the world,’ ‘in order that whosoever believeth should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ But that purpose of mercy to the world is actually reached in believers; and the design (‘that’ means ‘in order that’) in their case can hardly be distinguished from the result. Still, the design is uppermost; and the apostle would have chosen another form of expression if he had meant only the great love shown in our being called sons. Observe, however, that ‘sons’ is not used, but ‘children;’ St. Paul uses the former in the same connection, but St. John limits it to One. Note also the manifest distinction between the ‘being called’ and the ‘being’ children: good authorities support the addition to the text of ‘such we are,’ the change of tense simply marking the emphasis of the distinction. Although in the Hebrew idiom ‘to be called’ and ‘to be’ mean one and the same thing, a careful examination will show that there is a slight shade of difference. Even in the supreme instance, ‘He shall be called the Son of God,’ the Incarnate who ‘is’ eternally the Son is ‘called’ such with special reference to His relation to us. St. Paul expresses the distinction as adoption and renewal: the latter signifying the restoration of the Divine image, the former its accompanying privileges of liberty and inheritance. St. John himself illustrates his own meaning in the Gospel: ‘To them gave He privilege to become the children of God, who were born not of blood but of God.’ But the one cannot exist without the other. The two unite in the Christian sonship, an estate which has a glorious expansion and development in time and in eternity: the development of regeneration being into the perfect image of the Saviour’s holiness, that of adoption being into the full enjoyment of the eternal inheritance. To this the apostle now proceeds; but, before doing so, he adds a reflection in harmony with his meditative style.

For this cause the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. So far as this is a parenthesis, it is easily explained. The apostle’s mind is still occupied with the unanointed world of the last chapter, and he is about to return to it almost immediately: hence the echo of the past and the anticipation of the future. But it is not strictly a parenthesis. It is the writer’s manner to think and write in contrasts: known of God, we are unknown to the world. ‘For this cause’ gives the more general reason: because our new birth is a mystery of Divine gift and grace, the world, not having this gift, understands it not. ‘The natural man knoweth not the things of the Spirit;’ and this secret of regeneration is beyond the search of the unregenerate faculty: life alone understands life. The second ‘because’ gives a profounder reason for the former reason itself. ‘It knew Him not’ points to the world’s rejection of the Father manifested in His Son as one great act of wilful ignorance at the time of the incarnation, which is still continued. The world’s ignorance of God has assumed a new character. ‘O righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,’ the Lord said on the eve of His final rejection. He added, ‘But these have known that Thou didst send Me.’ And again He said, ‘If the world hate you, ye know that it hated Me before it hated you.’ The ground of the world’s negative inability to understand the children of God and positive hatred of them is its rejection of their Lord.

Verses 1-22

The apostle now introduces a new order of thought, governed by the idea of regeneration as the gift of life in Christ to individual man. He first (down to chap. 1 John 3:3) dilates on its glory as a birth of God; as the design of His love; as including both the privileges and the reality of sonship; as awaiting its full dignity at the revelation of Christ; and as inspiring through hope the energy of personal sanctification. Then (to 1 John 2:10) he dwells on the absolute incompatibility between the regenerate life and sin: as the destruction of sin is the object of Christ’s atoning; manifestation; as sin is inconsistent with abiding in Him; and as sin is the mark of communion with the devil. By an easy transition he passes to the essential connection between regeneration and brotherly love (down to 1 John 2:18): showing that the great message to the regenerate was the injunction to love one another; that this involves the abiding difference between the righteous and the unrighteous, between the world and believers, as proved from Cain downwards; that brotherly love is the mark of regeneration; and, finally, that our love to each other has one supreme standard, the sacrifice of Christ for us. The apostle winds up the subject (to 1 John 2:22) by showing the practical issue of obedience to this commandment in the confidence which it inspires towards God as the Judge of our hearts and the Hearer of our prayer.

Verse 2

1 John 3:2. Beloved, now are we children of God. This new address is appropriate to the sharers in common of the love of God, The affirmation that follows, repeating the solemn ‘children of God,’ is most emphatic: ‘we possess this sacred privilege, though the world acknowledge us not; nor look we for anything higher; there can be no greater title in earth or heaven.’ But it must be remembered that the apostle has just spoken of the coming of our Lord, and of our abiding spiritually in Him till then, lest we be ashamed to see His countenance. As He had this in His mind in writing, we must not forget it in our’ exposition of what follows.

And it hath not yet been manifested what we shall be: we know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him, since we shall see him even as he is. There is no contrast between the now and the then: the thought naturally passes onward ‘to see the end.’ Yet there is no aid from experience: ‘it hath not been manifested;’ that is, what kind of inheritance awaits us has never yet been seen, nor will it be seen until He appear. ‘But’ though there is no ‘but’ in the terse sentence ‘we know by certain inference what we know not by actual fact, that , when He appears, our highest hope will be satisfied in our perfect conformity, in body and soul and spirit, to His image. This we know; for we have the promise of His prayer that we shall be with Him where He is and behold His glory. Since we shall see Him as He is, which is our utmost happiness, we must needs be perfectly like Him, which is our utmost blessedness.’ Although, as has been said, St. John does not carefully distinguish between the Father and the Son who reveals Him, we must suppose the vision of Jesus to be here meant. God ‘dwelleth in light unapproachable;’ Him ‘no man hath seen, nor can see.’ Hence the beatific vision of God ‘face to face’ refers to ‘the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ Of the eternal City it is said: ‘The glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the Lamp thereof.’ Note that the emphasis does not rest upon the ‘seeing,’ but upon the ‘being like.’ Further, that the final glorification into the image of Christ is never said to be the result of seeing it; but, conversely, likeness to Him, the prerogative of the resurrection, is the preparation for seeing. The transformation which follows from ‘reflecting as a mirror the glory of the Lord’ has to do with the sanctification of this life; and will be found in the next verse. Lastly, the likeness here spoken of is left indefinite: it is not equality, it is not identification, it is not absorption. It is not the same word which is used concerning the ‘sons of the resurrection ‘who shall be ‘equal to the angels;’ it is not the same word which is used concerning Christ’s equality with the Father; but it is the same that is used of His taking the ‘likeness of man.’ And this most profoundly touches its meaning here. He as a servant was ‘like as we ARE,’ but He is now glorified. We shall be hereafter ‘like Him as he is.’ Meditation and faith and hope must fill up the thought.

Verse 3

1 John 3:3. And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure. That the ‘calling’ and the ‘being,’ the privilege and the reality, may be hereafter eternally one and indistinguishable, the children of God must in this life become like the Son in His purity: the Divine gift will be consummated as a gilt when the Son is revealed; but it is consummated in this world not without human co-operation. Here alone St. John calls in the energy of Christian hope: its object is the appearing of Christ, it is ‘set on Him;’ within the soul it is an incentive: the faith which worketh by love worketh by hope also. The meaning of the word ‘purifieth himself’ will best be understood by collating it with ‘doeth righteousness:’ the latter is a complete conformity with the requirements of law, the former is the deliverance from all interior sin; the latter is our finished justification, the former is our entire sanctification. Christ is the standard of both: ‘even as He is righteous,’ ‘even as He is pure.’ Neither the one nor the other connotes the idea that He became what He is. ‘He is pure,’ and that is the same as saying that the Divine holiness is essentially in Him. ‘Be ye holy, for I am holy.’ That He is called ‘pure’ and not ‘holy’ has two reasons. First, it springs from the idea of our ‘purifying ourselves.’ Secondly, it is more limited than ‘holy,’ and refers to His human nature as free from the stain that all other human nature has. It is never used of God, but is strictly appropriate to God incarnate. Then our purifying ourselves has reference to the gradual attainment of that entire deliverance from the stain of sin not unchastity or any specific form of it which is represented in the first chapter as the effect of Christ’s blood. The word there used St. Paul adopts to express our own evil: ‘Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement.’ St. John keeps that for the Divine work, and uses a term which St. Peter and St. James agree with him in adopting for the human act: ‘Seeing ye have purified your souls’ (1 Peter 1:22); ‘Purify your hearts, ye double-minded’ (James 4:8).

Regeneration and sinning incompatible: first considered with reference to our union with Christ as manifested to take away sin, and our true knowledge of Him; and then secondly with reference to the utter abolition of our fellowship with the Devil.

Verse 4

In the former part of the section the thought of the Son of God predominates; in the latter, the thought of the author of evil. The same truth is then referred to the indwelling of the Spirit. And the whole is closed by a summary assertion of the contrariety between the children of God and the children of the devil.

1 John 3:4. Every one that doeth sin transgresseth also the law: and sin is transgression of law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away sins: and in him is no sin. The apostle reverts to the proposition that began this second part, that the regenerate as born of God doeth righteousness because God is righteous. In the interval he has dilated on the privileges, present and future, of the state of sonship; ending with the sanctifying effect of the hope of being like Christ at His manifestation in glory. Now, he comes back to the first manifestation of Christ, the effect of which was to render righteousness possible by His atonement and obligatory by His example. But righteousness is something different from purification: to be righteous as He is righteous is more than being pure even as He is pure. Righteousness is that ‘keeping of His commandments’ (chap. 1 John 2:4) and ‘doing His will’ (chap. 1 John 2:17) which had been spoken of before. To be pure from sin is to be cleansed from its indwelling; to be righteous is to be conformed to the requirements of law: it is the opposite of ‘lawlessness’ here, which contradicts express ordinance, and of ‘unrighteousness’ in chap. 1 John 5:17, which is the absence of the internal principle of right. Collating these passages, we learn that sin and violation of law (for ‘lawlessness’ does not express the full idea) and the principle of wrong within are synonymous and co-extensive terms. Now in the phraseology of Scripture, ‘the Lamb of God beareth away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29),’ was manifested to put away or annul sin’ (Hebrews 9:26). St. John refers to the Baptist’s word, and the testimony of all the witnesses, as well known: ‘Behold,’ said the forerunner; and the exclamation pointed to that Son of God, the Only-begotten who was in the bosom of the Father and was manifested ‘to take away’ not to bear it by imputation, though that is implied sin as unrighteousness: to abolish in His people the very principle of opposition to law and deviation from right. For this is the real connection between the two verses. We shall see presently that St. John has the Antinomian in view, who asserted that the abolition of sin meant the abolition of law. Here, however, he only declares that the design of the Saviour’s manifestation was to take away not law, but transgression of law. The manifestation includes the whole process of Christ upon earth. ‘In Him is no sin,’ of unrighteousness as defined above, which would have prevented His offering from being that of perfect obedience: this, however, is an undertone supplied by the Epistle to the Romans; St. John’s sublime view of the atoning work does not linger upon any vindication of its perfection.

Verses 5-7

1 John 3:5-7. And in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither knoweth him. My little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. Here first enters the apostle’s high testimony to the sinlessness of the estate of fellowship with Christ: a testimony which recurs again and again, and is finally made one of the three summary points of the whole Epistle. Interpretations of his testimony differ according to the doctrinal views of those who offer them: their classification is needless here, as each will appear in its place. Suffice it to say that St. John in every case explains his own meaning in the context; and we shall find that the leading methods of exposition have each its measure of truth when itself is rightly expounded. In this passage the keynote is the danger of being led astray. St. John addresses his readers by the affectionate term which bespeaks the solemnity of the subject, and warns them against a deception which he regards as even in their case possible. The deceiver is no other than the worker of iniquity who thinks himself released from law, and would and might induce them to follow him. To say ‘that we have no sin’ is in chap. 1 John 1:8 self-deception; to say that we may know Christ and ‘continue in sin’ (using St. Paul’s phrase) is, after being saved, to be deceived by another: in the former case the Christian life has not begun, in the latter it is endangered from without. The deception looks back to the negative assertion of 1 John 3:6, and forward to the positive assertion of 1 John 3:7, and might have occupied its own verse between them. With regard to the former, the whole argument is in that grand negation: ‘in Him there is no sin,’ the ‘is’ is the eternal present of that Son of God ‘whose glory is that of the Only-begotten, full of grace and truth.’ The deceiver might not challenge that: although both in ancient and in modern times a certain germ of unrighteousness has been supposed to have been taken with our fallen nature which the Redeemer expelled from Himself; or it has been deemed necessary to maintain at least the possibility of sinning in the tempted Saviour. We may be sure that neither of these notions ever beclouded the apostle’s apprehension of his Lord, the Son of God manifested in flesh. ‘Whosoever abideth in’ this sinless Being himself sinneth not: ‘out of His fulness he receives grace upon grace,’ in continuous and sufficient measure to keep him from sin: the abiding is the condition, and it is the explanation of this wonderful word. This is admitted by many, who speak of it as the ideal state of a man in Christ: an ideal it is, just as it is an ideal in Christ; but no more. The word is inappropriate, however true in itself, if it is regarded as distinguished from the realization. The converse follows, as usual with changed terms: ‘he that sinneth,’ as the characteristic of his life, and sinneth while professing to believe in Jesus, ‘hath not seen Him, never saw Him nor sees Him now, with that spiritual eye that ‘beholds the glory of the Only-begotten, full of grace and truth,’ for it seems evident that St. John is thinking of his own Prologue; nor indeed has ever come to any saving knowledge of Him whatever. So far from abiding in Him, he has never had any spiritual fellowship with Him-: the order with St. John is to know, to see, and to abide in the Son of God, who is eternal life. With regard to the latter deception, St. John adopts the positive tone, though a negation is implied: declaring what had been the issue in his mind from the beginning of this section, that the righteousness of Christ is through regeneration imputed to the believer. What then was the delusion to which they were exposed? That, evidently, of supposing that a man might be in a state of righteousness, accepted as ‘righteous,’ without doing the works of righteousness. Here then the apostle identifies the works of righteousness and the character of righteousness; still in such a way as to make the deeds evidence of the state. He whose practice, inward and outward, in thought and word and spirit, is conformed to the law, and only he, is in the sight of God righteous. There is some difficulty in the final words ‘as He is righteous.’ We cannot suppose that they are intended to obviate perversion of the Pauline doctrine of our ‘being made the righteousness of God in Him,’ as if the meaning were that we are as well as are accounted righteous in Jesus, that is, through seeing Him and knowing Him and abiding in Him. The simplest view is that Christ is the standard, as of our holiness and of our filial dignity, so also of our righteousness. ‘Even as He is’ refers to all the three, and in the most marked manner. How far we may conform to that standard is a question that must be answered with caution: ‘as He is’ does not refer to a participation in the Lord’s perfect righteousness in the most absolute sense; but, on the other hand, the righteousness as a principle of universal obedience to the law is by the whole strain of the present argument suppose I to be reflected in us. As our regenerate life is His life in us, so our purification is to be as He is pure, and our righteousness as He is righteous.

Verses 8-9

1 John 3:8-9. He that doeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. This passage is, taken altogether, unparalleled in Scripture: as deep in its mystery as it is clear in its expression. As the doing of righteousness was in chap. 1 John 2:29 made the proof of a birth from God, so now the doing of sin, as the characteristic of the life, is made the evidence of an origination, though not a birth, from Satan. St. John here, as almost everywhere, reproduces the teaching of Christ in his own Gospel: ‘Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do’ (John 8:44); where the same ‘of’ is used. The following ‘begotten of God’ renders it needless that he should mark the difference between the relation of the regenerate to God and the relation of sinners to the wicked one. Moreover, that difference is more than hinted at in the words ensuing, ‘The devil sinneth from the beginning,’ which means that all sin had its origin in him, and that, as sin began with him, and came among men through his temptation, all who commit sin may be said to depend upon him and belong to his family, adopted into it, as it were, though not born again or from below. Wherever there is sin St. John regards it as a work of the devil, using human instruments: ‘He sinneth always and everywhere.’ The relation to sin, and sin in its relation to him, ‘the Son of God’ thus solemnly introduced as the antagonist of Satan was manifested ‘to destroy,’ that is, to dissolve or do away or break up as an organized fabric or organizing principle. He came not ‘to destroy’ the law of righteousness, but to fulfil it; He came to destroy the ‘law of sin,’ the Satanic law. The accomplishment of both designs runs on in parallel lines: the former is accomplished in him that doeth righteousness; the latter in him who ceases ‘to do sin.’ Nothing can be more express than the recognition of the personality of the devil; and nothing can be plainer than that the destruction of his works is strictly limited to the abolition of his power over man through the redemption of the cross, and of his power in man through the Spirit of regeneration. St. John keeps the words of Christ in view in every word he here writes. For the rest, he altogether abstains from allusion to the mystery of the origin of evil in Satan, as also from allusion to the final issues in relation to him: his organized works, as a system of anti-righteousness shall be dissolved for Christ cannot have appeared in vain and that is all that is said. In fact, this dark subject is introduced solely to impress the fact that they who are Christ’s are by that very fact removed from the sphere and the system of sin.

1 John 3:9. Whosoever is begotten of God doeth no sin; because his seed abideth in him: and he cannot sin because he is begotten of God. This third view of the contrariety between sin and the estate of regeneration somewhat changes the ground. The Divine Spirit comes in, here called the seed or principle of the Divine life in the soul. He has not been mentioned as yet in the Epistle; but in the second chapter He was the chrisma or unction upon believers; now, by analogy, He is the sperma or seed within them. The abiding of ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ within the spirit is perpetual freedom from ‘the law of sin and death’ (Romans 8:3). This central word looks back to the former clause and forward to the latter. He who has in him the indwelling Spirit, ‘doeth not sin:’ he abhors the remainder of it in his nature, he has renounced the works of Satan, he maintains his fellowship with Christ, and his life is governed by righteousness. He may grieve the Spirit, and may fall into sin, as the apostle himself says in chap. 1 John 2:1; but living in the Spirit, and walking in the Spirit, this he will not do: ‘he sinneth not,’ and abstinence from the act of sin is his mark and his privilege. When it is added that ‘he cannot sin, we are to understand the word ‘cannot’ as referring to the moral impossibility of a regenerate soul violating the principle or, as it were, instinct of his new life. The child of God can sin; but the act of sinning, so far as he is concerned, suspends his life; and, as we are told in chap. 1 John 5:16, life must be given to him again when he sins not unto death. The three usual methods of relieving the difficulty of the passage have a certain measure of truth in them as applied to the three clauses of this verse. The first certainly gives the Christian ideal, that a regenerate soul ‘sinneth not:’ this, however, is the normal Christian state of one who lives in the Spirit, a realized ideal. The second allows us to say that the regenerate as regenerate sins not, though he may suffer sin: the possible antinomian abuse of this truth does not invalidate it. The only sin St. John considers possible to a pure Christian is the act which he mourns over as soon as committed, which he carries to his Advocate with the Father, and which, being forgiven and washed away, is not followed by the withdrawal of the living Seed, who still preserves in him his better self. The third lays them upon the perfect tenses, ‘He that has been and still is in a confirmed regenerate state cannot sin.’ Undoubtedly an abiding and consummated regeneration tends to make sin more and more impossible; St. John’s perfect regeneration, however, is not such as improving on or perfecting itself, but as the true Divine life of the Son consummating the preliminary spiritual movements that lead to it.

Verse 10

1 John 3:10. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither ha that loveth not his brother. Three things are observable here. First, this conclusion of the whole matter shows that the apostle’s predominant aim has been to establish clearly the signs and tokens by which the world may be distinguished from the church. The ‘manifest’ is not to the eye of God alone, though to His supremely and infallibly, but to all who have eyes to see. The ‘doing sin’ and the ‘doing righteousness’ are the works of the ‘children of God’ by regeneration, and ‘the children of the devil’ by imitation. St. John knows no third class; and the fact that he speaks of the broad characters that stamp the two must throw its influence back upon the interpretation of all that precedes. Secondly, he makes it plain that his chief polemic is against the spurious Christians who strove to reconcile knowledge of Christ with relaxed morality. And, thirdly, he introduces at the close the idea of ‘brotherly love,’ not as strictly synonymous with righteousness, but yet as in a certain sense the pith and compendium of it. This point is now taken up in what follows.

Verses 11-12

The relation of regeneration to brotherly love.

1 John 3:11. For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. There is deep emphasis on the word ‘message,’ which seems here, as in the first utterance concerning the God of light, to introduce a fundamental truth; and it will be observed that this message is in what follows dwelt upon in its contrasts and deductions just as that early message was: it is like a second and a new great announcement. The ‘commandment’ of chap. 1 John 2:7 is as it were carried higher: it is the fundamental principle of religion ‘from the beginning’ delivered in successive proclamations. ‘That we should love’ must have its force: this has been the design of all.

1 John 3:12. Not as Cain was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him! Because his works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. The construction of the first clause should not be mended by any additional words. Cain and Abel were the first historical examples of the difference between regenerate love and unregenerate hate. But the opposite to love is alone here exhibited. The first reason that be slew his brother is that he was ‘of the evil one;’ he was not ‘of God.’ The second is the former in another form: as righteousness is the fruit and test of the new birth, Cain’s evil deeds may be said to have been the reason of his murderous violence. Thirdly, in this condensed sentence is included the thought that the righteousness of the children of God evokes for ever the hatred of the unrighteous. The devil is here ‘the evil one,’ because of the ‘evil works’ following; and it must be noted that St. John here gives his authoritative interpretation of the Old Testament both as to the devil’s relation to Cain and the reason of Cain’s hatred.

Verses 13-15

1 John 3:13-15. Cain becomes ‘the world,’ and Abel ‘you;’ the emphasis resting on these two words.

1 John 3:14. There is no exhortation in this. Faithful to the thought of the great message, the apostle says: We know that we have passed out of death into life. Here the transition is regarded as perfect; and the evidence to ourselves is, because we love the brethren. Not, ‘We are now in the life because we love;’ but, ‘Because we love we know.’ Love is not the cause, but the fruit and evidence of regeneration.

He that loveth not abideth in death: the love is here general. But in the next verse it is made specific in two ways: first, it is whosoever hateth his brother not to love is to hate; and, secondly, he who hateth is a murderer with allusion to Cain, and to one behind Cain who ‘was a murderer from the beginning.’ The remainder of the verse must be regarded as an appeal to the Christian or human instinct: Ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him. The abiding is simply an echo of the former: it says nothing about his having had it and lost it, or as to his not retaining it hereafter; but is quite general, as when our Lord said, ‘Ye have not My word abiding in you.’ The argument is an apostrophe: ‘No man who would destroy life can have life in himself.’ Mark, finally, that the last words declare ‘eternal life’ to be the true Divine life of regeneration or fellowship with God, not life as mere continuance in being. There would be no meaning in ‘hath not abiding life abiding in him.’

Verses 16-18

1 John 3:16-18. Nothing in the whole Epistle is more impressive or more affecting than the point of juncture in the following words. Against the hate and the murder is set the supreme example of self-sacrificing love. But behind this there is the transition from the principle that the life of sonship must be a life of charity to the thought of that love which gave us the life in the gift of the Son. We may here resume the words, ‘Behold, what manner of love!’ Here we have the standard of the charity which we must set before us as our aim.

Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us. Not ‘the love of God ‘or’ of the Father’ as yet, though that will come; but love in its eternal essence and solitary manifestation, as the last expression and first source of all charity. ‘Because He’ there is only One to be thought of here ‘sacrificed His life for our advantage:’ this expression, occurring only in St. John, is chosen out of many that might have been used in order to combine His pattern in men with our imitation. ‘Which thing is true in Him and in us.’ And we ought refers not merely to our duty of imitation, but to the obligation resulting from the fellowship of the love common to Him and to His people. The essence of love is the impartation of self to others; towards those who need it, it is self-sacrifice: in Christ there was the laying down or pledging His soul as an expiatory sacrifice or ransom price; but these last ideas are not expressed here, because the apostle is hastening to our imitation, which must simply be the ‘having laid down our individual lives’ in will and intention for the brethren, the consummate act of self-devotion being left to the will of God.

Then follow two clauses, one of contrast, the other of exhortation. ‘How abideth the love of God, thus shown in Christ, as a proof of regeneration in him who, having the world’s sustenance of life, shutteth his heart against his brother’s need which he beholds sensibly appealing to him?’ The strength of the terms must not be overlooked. So far from giving himself, he will not give his mere earthly goods; and he closes his heart instead of opening it for the sacrifice of life. This betokens the utter absence of the ideal life. But the exhortation is a warning to those who have it.

Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and truth: Christ loved in both, and so must we love. But more than that: the word may be a sound theory, uttered only in idle language, without reality; therefore ‘let us not love in tongue only, but in truth.’

Verses 19-22

The privilege of confidence.

1 John 3:19-22 . Hereby: this looks back, taking up the word ‘truth,’ according to the well-known habit of the writer in beginning a new theme. But he deepens the meaning of the word: as everywhere, the particle ‘of points to a source, the streams of which flow into the soul. The truth is the life of God viewed as a perfect revelation: ‘the truth in us’ and ‘we are of the truth’ are counterparts. Shall we know keeps up the running thought of the chapter, the personal evidence of regeneration, but with reference to a future contingency referred to in the next verse. And shall assure our heart: shall persuade our doubting heart to give up its doubt, or our accusing heart to appeal to God against its own accusation. Before him, whereinsoever our heart condemn us. ‘Before Him’ is not in His future judgment, but in His sight before whose awful presence the Christian always lives, the supreme Lord whose vicegerent conscience is in the soul. The ‘heart’ as here used is the ‘conscience’ of St. Paul and St. Peter; but with this difference, that they use a word which makes prominent the knowledge in the moral consciousness (which is conscience), while St. John emphasizes the feeling or the pang of that knowledge. ‘Whereinsoever:’ a careful consideration (the detail of which cannot here be entered into) will lead to the conclusion that this is the right reading of the word translated ‘For if in our Version; and that there is no stop before it, but that ‘we shall assure’ runs on to the next verse.

Three things must be remembered before we proceed: first, that the word is ‘accuse’ and not ‘condemn,’ for there is an appeal to a higher court; secondly, that the accusation, while more or less limited to defects in brotherly love, has a universal reference, as the last words of 1 John 3:22 show; and, thirdly, that the whole tone of the passage is consolatory from beginning to end. Because God is greater than our heart: this is a most affecting, and unique, expression of the blessed truth that God in the evangelical economy is the Controller of conscience: it is He who really ‘persuades’ it, though St. John, as his manner is, gives to man’s faith the office of God’s mercy. And knoweth all things. ‘And’ has an obvious force: He who searcheth the heart knoweth what is the deep, hidden, inextinguishable mind of the heart. St. John heard long before an anticipatory commentary on his own words: ‘Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.’ Our little heart has some measure of compassion for the suffering brother; His greater heart will not fail to have compassion on us in our sincerity. It is as if the words were chosen to signify this: ‘condemn’ is ‘to know against myself;’ God may He said ‘to know for us.’ Finally, God knoweth His own Gospel of atonement, the mystery of “which is that the righteous charge of conscience is righteously silenced. But this passes from pure exposition to the function of the theologian and the preacher.

1 John 3:21. Beloved: this appeal does not mark a change in the persons spoken of; it is St. John’s way of introducing a matter of deep experimental importance. He is approaching the inmost sanctuary of religious privilege. If our heart condemn us not: the alternative case is now marked, and it is supposed that, like St. Paul, we ‘know nothing against ourselves;’ but St. John never introduces an antithesis without somewhat enlarging his meaning; and here the ‘not accusing includes the ‘assuring our hearts’ as its ground, not without an anticipation of the faith in Jesus Christ, and the testimony of the Spirit in 1 John 3:23. It is essential to remember this. We have boldness toward God. Four times we find this word, which is the outward expression of St. Paul’s ‘full assurance:’ twice in a more general sense as the confidence of hope as to the day of judgment; twice with its more exact meaning of ‘free speech’ in relation to prayer. Here the apostle passes from the negative soothing of the conscience to the positive and higher privilege which the children of God, approving their regeneration by works, have in Approaching God. Their confident speech in prayer is, however, omitted: the confidence is marked by the result of it. Whatsoever we ask, we receive of him. In the whole Epistle prayer is mentioned only twice. It is the privilege of sonship; and, passing over everything intermediate (though ‘if we confess our sins’ underlies all), St. John in both cases leaps to the conclusion which our Lord teaches: ‘All things, believing, ye shall receive.’ We receive in asking, the present asking is the present receiving: this is the confidence, of which more hereafter. Because we keep his commandments in the spirit of filial obedience, and do the things which are pleasing in his sight in the spirit of filial zeal. This is a unique combination: the latter clause is also unique, though it is an echo of the Lord’s words, ‘do always the things that please Him.’ In the light of these it is evident that the heart’s ‘not condemning’ may have as its positive side such a testimony of the Father’s complacency as makes prayer very bold. Thus we have a very high testimony to the possible character of the communion of the soul with God. But we must remember the ‘working in us that which is well-pleasing in His sight’ (Hebrews 13:21). The next verse, beginning a new section, will show that this high obedience includes faith in the Lord Jesus, and therefore is not itself the meritorious ground of our acceptance as petitioners. The same is taught by the mystical union that follows, Christ abiding in us, and we in Him: ‘Apart from Me ye can do nothing.’ But, after all, St. John teaches that the Hearer of prayer has a special complacency in His children’s reverent obedience and endeavour to please Him. Wrought in Christ, our works are rewarded by His approval: we give our Lord what He is pleased to seek, and He gives us what we ask.

Verse 23

1 John 3:23. And this is his commandment: the one commandment which, as it contains all others, is especially the unity of faith and love. In this Epistle the sum of faith is in the name of Jesus, and the sum of duty is love. It is the Father’s will t hat we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ: the name stands here for the whole person and work of Christ, not without reference to the confession that follows; and the peculiarity of the phrase here, ‘believe the name’ with the dative, connotes strongly the ethical feeling of trust.

And love one another even as he, Christ, gave us commandment. Out of the Father’s command to believe sprang the commandment of Jesus to love. ‘And’ implies the energy of faith producing love; and ‘even as’ is more than ‘according to His commandment,’ signifying the kind of love that He exemplified and prescribed. This foundation of faith must be remembered throughout the Epistle.

Verses 23-24

The ruling idea of the third part is Faith in the Spirit’s testimony concerning the Son of God incarnate. The close of chap. 3 introduces the theme by the first explicit mention of faith and the Spirit. In chap. 1 John 4:1-6 the two opposite confessions, resulting from two opposite hearings of two opposite classes of spirits, are dwelt upon, with the exhortation to apply the test referred to in the second chapter. The remainder of chap. 4 is occupied with the relation between the love of God manifested in the atonement and its perfect reflection in those who received the evangelical witness of that love: the confession of the Son of God being still the leading principle. Down to chap. 1 John 5:5 we have the victory of faith in Jesus as the only source of that love to God in the strength of which we can love our brethren and overcome the world: these two being strictly interwoven. From 1 John 3:6 to 1 John 3:13, the apostle gives his full and final teaching as to the Spirit’s witness to the manifested Christ, and the nature of that witness. The remainder, from 1 John 3:14 to 1 John 3:17, is occupied with the confidence in prayer inspired by this faith.

Verse 24

1 John 3:24. And he that keepeth his commandments the commandments are plural again, and the obedience is individual abideth in him, and he in him. The mutual indwelling is here and in chap. 1 John 4:12 introduced: in the earlier portion it was ‘we in him’ chiefly, as it will be again at the close. But these two passages one individual and the other collective, one said of Christ and the other of God in the heart of the Epistle are the perfect expression of its keynote.

And hereby we know that he abideth in us by the Spirit which he hath given us: ‘hereby’ refers to the obedience; according to the Lord’s own word, who promised, John 14:20-24, to manifest Himself to him, and dwell with him, who has His commandments and keepeth them. Having that passage in mind, the apostle singles out the indwelling of Christ and makes that supreme. But there is higher testimony than the works, that of the Holy Ghost whose direct assurance is added. He who ‘gave’ the commandment ‘gave’ the Spirit of obedience, whose indwelling presence is the indwelling of Christ and the perfect assurance of it.

Bibliographical Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 John 3". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/scn/1-john-3.html. 1879-90.
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