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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
1 John 3



Verses 1-24

VERSE 28 of Chapter 2 stands as a short paragraph by itself, and the second chapter would more fittingly have ended with it. Verse 29 begins another paragraph which extends to verse 1 John 3:3 of chapter 3. At this point someone might well have desired to enquire—But who are the children of God, and how exactly may they be distinguished from those who are not?

The answer given here is that those who are born of God are the children of God, and that they may be distinguished by the doing of righteousness. The doing is something habitual and characteristic. It is not that they do righteousness off and on, now and again; but that they practise it as the habit of their lives. They are far from being perfect in it—only One was that. Still, as born of God they necessarily have His nature. He is righteous: we know that right well. Then of necessity those born of Him are characterized by righteousness: it could not be otherwise. Therefore when we see anyone really practising righteousness we are safe in assuming that such an one is a true child of God.

The practice of righteousness is a very big matter, going far beyond the paying of one-hundred pence in the pound. We have to begin with God and render to Him that which is His due, and then consider rendering to all others that which is their due. No unconverted man can be said to practise righteousness for such have never begun at the beginning. They do not practise what is right in regard to God.

We know God. He is righteous. Here is someone who practises righteousness. We are safe in regarding that one as born of God. He belongs to the Divine family. But then what amazing love this is! And it is bestowed upon us by the Father Himself!

The word that John uses here is “children” rather than “sons.” It is a more intimate term. Angelic beings are spoken of in Scripture as “sons of God,” and all things are of Him as creatures of His hand; but to be His children we must be “born of Him.” This is something more profound as well as more intimate, and we may well marvel at the manner of the Father’s love which has bestowed upon us such grace as this. Into this new relation we have been brought by God’s own act, wrought within us by the power of the Holy Ghost. It might have pleased Him, while saving us, to have brought us into a relation with Himself far inferior to this. But no; such has been the manner of His love.

But further, just as this act of His in begetting us has connected us with Him in this new relationship, so also it has disconnected us from the world, and that in a most fundamental way. When Christ was here the world knew and understood neither Him nor His Father. That was because in origin and character He was totally opposite to them. He said to them, “Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world.” And again, when they claimed that God was their Father He said, “If God were your Father ye would love Me” (John 8:23, John 8:42). The trouble with them was that they had not the nature which would enable them to know or understand Christ. Now we, thank God, have the nature which knows Him and loves Him; but for that very reason we also are not known and understood by the world. It must be so in the very nature of things.

The children’s place is ours NOW. The love of the Father, which is proper to the relationship, is ours NOW. Yet there is that for which we wait. What we shall be has not yet appeared; but it is going to appear when He appears. When He is manifested in His glory, we shall not only be with Him but like Him, for we are going to see Him as He is. The world will see Him in that day, arrayed in His majesty and His might. They will see Him in His official glories. We shall see Him in His more intimate personal glories. The kings of this world are seen by the populace in official trappings on state occasions: but by members of the royal families they are seen in private as they are.

Now we must be like Him to see Him as He is. Only as bearing the image of the Heavenly One can we tread the heavenly courts and gaze upon Him in this intimate way. We are actually going to be LIKE HIM. The children of God today are nothing much to look at. They are often a very poor and despised people. In the autumn we may see a number of dull, uninteresting caterpillars crawling upon the nettles. What they are going to be does not yet appear. Wait till next summer, when they will emerge as gorgeous butterflies! Even so we shall emerge in His likeness in the day of His manifestation. We shall be seen then in the estate which is proper to the children of God.

Such then is our hope in Christ. As we contemplate it we must surely be conscious of its elevating and purifying power. If this is our high and holy destiny we cannot possibly be content to accept the defilements of this world, whether they are within or without us. We must purify ourselves with such a hope in view. We might rest content with the defilement if these things were mere notions or theories to us, but not if they are a real hope. Burning as a hope within our hearts, we must purify ourselves, and this process will continue as long as we are here, for the standard of purity is “even as He is pure.” We may make an application of Mark 9:3, which speaks of His raiment as “exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.” No fuller on earth can white us to that standard: we shall only reach it when like Him in glory.

Passing from verse 1 John 3:3 to verse 1 John 3:4 of our chapter, we are conscious of a very abrupt change. We have just been told how we may discern the true children of God by their practice of righteousness. We are now to see the complete contrast that exists between the children of God and the children of the devil. There are two distinct seeds in the earth from a moral and spiritual standpoint, diametrically opposed the one to the other. They cannot be confused or mixed, though an individual may be transferred from one to the other by an act of God, by being begotten of Him.

But first of all the true nature of sin must be exposed. One of the few blemishes of our excellent Authorized Version occurs in verse 1 John 3:4, where the word for lawlessness is translated as “transgression of the law.” “Every one that practises sin practises also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (New Trans.). If sin really had been the transgression of the law, then there would have been no sin committed in the world between Adam and Moses, as Romans 5:13, Romans 5:14 says. But sin is something deeper than that, for lawlessness is the denial and repudiation of all law, and not merely the breaking of it when given. If the planets that encircle our sun were suddenly to repudiate all law, the solar system would be destroyed. Lawlessness amongst the intelligent creatures of God’s hand is equally deadly, and destructive of His moral order and government.

Sin therefore is utterly abhorrent to God, and cannot be permitted to continue for ever. Hence Christ has been manifested—One in whom sin was entirely absent—that He might remove it. Verse 1 John 3:5 only goes as far as this, that He was manifested to remove our sins, the sins of the children of God. Our sins are only a part of the whole, but they are the part in question here, for the point is that the children of God have been brought out of the lawlessness that once marked them and into obedience.

The One in whom is no sin has been manifested, and as a result He has taken away our sins, so that we may abide in Him and sin not. Verse 1 John 3:6 presents the contrast from an abstract point of view and must be read in connection with verse 1 John 3:4, so that “sinneth” has the special force of “practiseth lawlessness.” The children of God are characterized by this: they abide in Him who has been manifested to take away our lawlessnesses, consequently as under His control they do not practise lawlessness. On the contrary, the one who does practise lawlessness has not seen nor known this blessed One.

The righteousness of verse 1 John 3:7 is in contrast with the lawlessness of verse 6. We are not to be deceived upon this point for the tree is known by its fruit. We may reason of course from the tree to its fruit, and say that he that is righteous doeth righteousness. Here however we reason from the fruit back to the tree, for John declares that he who practises righteousness is righteous, according to the righteousness of the One by whom he has been begotten. This is apparent if we connect the verse with 1 John 2:29.

On the other hand, he who practises lawlessness is not of God at all. He is of the devil since he is displaying the exact character of the source from whence he springs. From the beginning the devil sins. He was committed to lawlessness from the outset; and the Son of God has been manifested that He might destroy his works. What the devil has done, leading men into lawlessness, the Son of God came to undo.

Verse 1 John 3:9 emphasizes what has just been said in verses 1 John 3:6-7, putting it in a still more emphatic way. No one that has been begotten of God practises lawlessness, and this for a very fundamental reason. The Divine seed remains in him, and hence as begotten of God he cannot sin. Here are dogmatic statements of great strength. No qualifying statements are allowed to enter and modify their positive force. Consequently they have presented a great deal of difficulty to a great many minds.

Two things help to clear up these difficulties. The first is a simple understanding of the force of abstract statements. When we speak abstractly we purposely eliminate in our minds and utterances all qualifying considerations, in order that we may more clearly set forth the essential nature of the thing of which we speak. To take the simplest of illustrations: we say, cork floats, alcohol intoxicates, fire burns. Thereby we state the essential character or nature of these things, without committing ourselves to the consideration of what may look like contradictions in practice. The old lady in yonder cottage, for instance, might say that on this cold and windy day she only wished that her fire did burn. We all know that this unfortunate abnormality, occurring at certain times, does not alter the truth of the abstract statement—fire burns.

The second thing is that we read this passage in the light of verse 1 John 3:4, which acts as a preface to it. There is no mention of sin from 1 John 2:12 down to 1 John 3:4. But between verse 1 John 3:4 and verse 1 John 3:9 we have the word in different forms about ten times; and at the outset the exact meaning attaching to the word is given to us. The word is defined for us; hence the mistranslation of the definition is particularly unfortunate. The point all through is the practice of righteousness, which expresses itself in obedience, in contrast with the practice of lawlessness, which expresses itself in disobedience.

In verse 1 John 3:9 the one begotten of God is viewed in his abstract character. If viewed apart from his abstract character he is found with sin in him and with sins that have on occasion to be confessed and forgiven, according to earlier statements in this very epistle (1 John 1:8.—2: 1). Viewed abstractly he does not practise lawlessness, indeed he cannot be lawless just because he is begotten of God.

What a wonderful—perfectly wonderful—statement this is! Such is our nature as begotten of God. At present the fact is often obscured by reason of the flesh still being in us, and our giving place to it. But when we are with Him and like Him, seeing Him as He is, the flesh will have been eliminated for ever. There will be no qualification then. The fact will be absolute, and not only abstract. When we are glorified with Christ it will not only be that we do not sin but that absolutely we cannot sin. We can no more sin than He.

If any desire further help on this matter they may get it by contrasting our passage with Romans 8:7, Romans 8:8. There the flesh is viewed in its abstract nature, and it is the precise opposite of what we have here. It is essentially lawless, and completely opposed to God and His nature.

In verse 1 John 3:10 another feature that characterizes the true children of God is brought forward. They not only practise righteousness but they also are marked by love. Other scriptures show us that love must characterize our dealings with the world. Here we are told that we display it towards our brethren; that is, all others who with ourselves are begotten of God. So those who have their origin of God and those who have their origin of the devil are sharply differentiated by those two things. The one have righteousness and love: the other have neither.

Love and righteousness are closely connected yet distinct. Love is entirely a matter of nature. “God is love,” we read, while we do not read that God is righteousness. Love is what He is in Himself. Righteousness expresses His relation to all outside Himself. We are begotten of Him: therefore we display His nature on the one hand, and act as He acts on the other.

In the child of God love must necessarily flow out to all others who are His children. It is the love of the Divine family. The instruction that we should love one another was not something new, rather it had been given from the beginning. From the outset love had been enjoined. See how fully the Lord enforced it in John 13:34, John 13:35.

In just the same way the hatred which marks the world—those who find their origin in the devil and his lie—is a very ancient thing. It also goes back to the beginning, the outset of the devil’s activities amongst men. No sooner was there a man begotten in sin, and in that way morally the seed of the devil, than the feature was seen in him. Cain was that man, and the hatred that belongs to the seed of the devil came out in full force. He slew his brother. There was no love there but hatred. And why? Because there was no righteousness but lawlessness.

So the illustration is complete. Cain the seed of the devil, was a lawless man who as a result hated and slew his brother. As begotten of God we have love as our proper nature, and are left here to practise also righteousness. Loving our brother and practising righteousness, we make it plainly manifest that we are children of God.

May that fact be more and more plainly manifest in all of us.

Each created thing reproduces itself “after his kind.” This fact is intimated ten times over in Genesis 1:1-31. In our chapter we find that the same law holds good in spiritual things. Those who are “begotten of God” are characterized by love and righteousness. Those who are “children of the devil” are characterized by hatred and lawlessness, just because they are after his kind. The two seeds are clearly manifest in this: and they are wholly opposed the one to the other.

There is nothing surprising therefore if the believer is confronted by the hatred of this world. The “world” here is not the world-system—that cannot hate—but the people who are dominated by the world-system. The child of God does not hate them. How could he, when it is his very nature to love? The world hates him, for the same reason as he who does evil hates the light, for the same reason as Cain hated Abel. It must be confessed as a sad fact that very often we do marvel when we are hated, but it is very foolish of us. It is rather that which we should expect in the very nature of things.

The Christian does not hate, he loves. But in verse 1 John 3:14 it does not say by way of contrast that we love the world. If it did we should be in danger of a collision with verse 1 John 3:15 of the previous chapter. It is true that we should be characterized by love towards men generally, as shown in Romans 13:8-10, but what is said here is that we love the brethren; that is, all others who have been begotten of God. Love is the very life of the family of God.

How do we pass from death unto life? One answer to that question is given to us by John 5:24. It is by hearing Christ’s word and believing on Him that sent Him. In the passage before us the answer evidently is, by being begotten of God—the context makes this clear. Putting the two scriptures together, we get, what we may call, our side of the matter on the one hand, and God’s side of the matter on the other. To decide precisely how the two sides, the Divine and the human, combine is of course beyond us. The exact mode in which the Divine and the human are united must ever be beyond us, whether in Christ Himself, or in Holy Scripture, or anywhere else.

But the fact remains that we have passed from death unto life, and the proof of it is that we love the brethren, for love is practically the very life of the family even as it is of the Father Himself. Here the Apostle John corroborates the sweeping statements made about love by the Apostle Paul in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. He tells us that if any of us do not love our brother we abide in death, no matter what we may seem to be. Paul tells us that, no matter what we may seem to have, if we have not love we are nothing—we simply do not count at all in God’s reckoning.

Verse 1 John 3:15 puts the case even more strongly. The fact is that in this matter we cannot be neutral. If we do not love our brother we hate him; and he who hates is potentially a murderer. Cain was an actual murderer, but in Matthew 5:21, Matthew 5:22 the Lord Jesus lays the emphasis not on the act but on the anger and hatred which prompted the act, and so does our scripture here. He who is possessed with a spirit of hatred is possessed with the spirit of murder, and no such person can be possessed of eternal life. As we have seen, eternal life is ours as continuing or abiding “in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24, 1 John 2:25). Abiding in Him, eternal life abides in us, and the essential nature of that life is love.

But though love is the simple breathing forth of the life that we possess, we none of us have it as though we were each a little self-sufficient fountain of it. The subjective display of love in us can never be disconnected from the objective display of it in God. Hence we ever need to look outside ourselves if we would really perceive love, as love really is in itself. “Hereby we have known love, because He has laid down His life for us” (New Trans.). This was the supreme display of the real thing.

We have to ponder very deeply upon all the virtue and excellence and glory that is compressed into the “HE,” and then contemplate the sin and wretchedness and misery that characterized the “us,” if we desire in any adequate way to perceive the love. It is very important that we should do so, for only then can we possibly face the obligation which as a consequence is laid upon us. He manifested the love by laying down His life for us. As the fruit thereof we live in His life which is a life of love. A beautiful circuit is completed. He loved. He laid down His life for us. We live of His life. We love.

Now for the obligation. “We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” Love with us ought to go as far as that. Priscilla and Aquila went as far as that for Paul, since they “laid down their own necks” for his life. Would they have done so for some very lowly and utterly undistinguished saint, we wonder? Very likely they would, for they are placed at the very head of the long list of Christian worthies who are saluted in Romans 16:1-27. At any rate that is the length to which love of a divine sort goes.

If love goes to that length, it obviously will go to any point that falls short of it. There are many ways in which the child of God may lay down his or her life for the brethren which do not involve dying, or even facing actual death. The household of Stephanus, for instance—of whom we read in 1 Corinthians 16:15 — “addicted themselves to the ministry of the saints,” or “devoted themselves to the saints for service.” If they did not lay down, they at least laid out their lives for the brethren. They were serving Christ in His members, and displaying the love in very practical fashion.

The love of God was dwelling in them, and it is to dwell in us, as verse 1 John 3:17 shows. If it does it must necessarily find an outlet towards others who are children of God. God has no needs for us to meet. The cattle upon a thousand hills are His, if He needed them. It is the children of God who are afflicted and who have need in this world. The practical way of showing love to God is to care for His children, as we see them have need. If we have this world’s substance, and yet we refuse compassion to our brother in need in order to eat our morsel alone, it is very certain that the love of God is not abiding in us.

At this point we may remark that one word which is very characteristic of this epistle has already been translated by four different words in English:—abide, continue, dwell, remain. The four words used are no doubt quite suitable and appropriate in their place, but it is as well that we should know this fact, for it helps us to preserve in our minds the continuity of the Apostle’s thought. Dealing, as he does, with what is fundamental and essential in the Divine life and nature, he necessarily has to speak of things that abide.

Verse 1 John 3:18 is not addressed to the babes, but to all the children of God irrespective of their spiritual growth. We all have to remember that love is not mere sentiment, not a matter of endearing words uttered by the tongue. It is a matter of action and of reality. The love that we have perceived, according to verse 1 John 3:16, did not exist in mere words but came out in an act of supreme virtue. The love of God dwelt in Him and He laid down His life for us. If the love of God dwells in us, we shall express our love towards our brother in action and work, rather than in word alone.

If we love thus IN truth it will be manifest that we are OF the truth. We are, so to speak, begotten of the truth, and hence truth expresses itself in our actions; and not only will other people be assured that we are of the truth, but we shall gain assurance for our own hearts as before God. A man may buy what is stated to be an apple tree of a certain variety, and to assure him he is handed a certificate signed by the horticulturist who raised the tree. That is good, but a mistake is possible. When in due season he picks from that tree apples of just that variety, he has as perfect an assurance as it is possible to have. When the love and the truth of God bear their fruit in the life and in deed, our hearts may well be assured.

“Alas! I am none too positive. This desirable fruit has often been lacking in me.” That is what many of us would have to say. That is just what the Apostle anticipates in the next verse. Considering these things, our hearts condemn us. How solemn then is the fact that “God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” Solemn, and yet very blessed. For see how this great fact worked in the heart of Simon Peter, as recorded in John 21:17.

Peter who had so confidently boasted of his love to the Lord, had signally failed to show it in deed. He had instead thrice denied Him with oaths and curses. The Lord now thrice questions him on the point, letting down a probe into his conscience. Instead of having assurance, Peter’s heart condemned him, though he knew that at bottom he did love the Lord. If Peter had some sense of his failure the Lord who knew all things saw the depth of it as Peter did not. And yet by that very fact He also knew that, in spite of the failure, genuine love was there. So Peter said, “Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” He was glad to cast himself upon the fact that “God is greater than our hearts, and knoweth all things.” So may we be, when in a like situation.

On the other hand there are times—God be thanked—when our heart does not condemn us; times when the life and love and truth of God in our souls has been in vigour, expressing themselves in practice. Then it is that we have confidence and boldness before God. We have liberty in His presence. We can make request of Him with the assurance of being answered, and receiving in due season that which we have desired.

The word “whatsoever” in verse 1 John 3:22 presents us with a blank cheque, leaving us to fill it in. But the “we,” who are presented with it, are limited by what follows as well as by what precedes. They are those whose heart does not condemn them, who keep His commandment, and do the things that are pleasing in His sight. Such individuals can be entrusted with the blank cheque. They are Christians who love in action and not merely in word, they are marked by that obedience which is so pleasing to God. He who is characterized by love and obedience will have his thoughts and desires brought into harmony with God’s, so that he will ask according to His will, and consequently receive the things that he desires.

We keep His commandments; but there is one commandment which stands out in a very special way, and which divides into two heads—faith and love. We are to believe on the Name of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and then love one another as He commanded His disciples; notably in John 13:34, John 13:35, for instance. We recognize here the two things that are so often mentioned together in the epistles. Paul had not been to Colosse, but he gave thanks to God on their behalf having “heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints” (Colossians 1:4). These two familiar things are proof of true conversion, evidence of a genuine work of God.

What perhaps is not so familiar to us is both of them being treated as a commandment. It is worthy of careful note that of all the apostles John is the one to write a great deal to Christians about the commandments given to us. He wrote when the other apostles had gone, and when the tendency to turn grace into license was becoming pronounced; hence this particular emphasis, we believe. They are not commandments of a legal sort, to be carried out in order that we may establish our righteousness in the presence of God, but they are commandments nevertheless. What John declares to us in this epistle is in order that we may be introduced into fellowship, or communion, with God. If we enter into the communion, we soon discover the commandments, and there is nothing incompatible between them. They are wholly in agreement, for only in obedience to the commandments is the communion enjoyed and maintained.

This is emphasized in verse 1 John 3:24, where we find that it is the saint walking in obedience that abides in Him. At the end of the previous chapter the children—all the family of God—were exhorted to abide in Him, for it is the way of proper Christian life and fruitfulness. Here we find that the abiding is contingent upon obedience. The two things go together, acting and reacting upon each other. He who abides obeys, but equally true it is, that he who obeys abides.

But obedience leads to His abiding in us, as well as our abiding in Him. If we abide in Him we necessarily draw from Him all the fresh springs of our spiritual life, and as our practical life is thus drawn from His, it is His life which comes into display in us, and He is seen to be abiding in us. Here, we believe John sets forth in principle what Paul states as his own experience in Galatians 2:20. It was as he “lived by the faith of the Son of God” that he could say, “Christ liveth in me.”

By the Spirit, who has been given to us, we know that Christ abides in us. The Spirit is the energy of the new life that we have in Christ, and other scriptures show us that He is “the Spirit of Christ.” Other people may know that Christ abides in us by observing something at least of His character being displayed by us. We know it by His Spirit having been given to us.

The Holy Spirit has been alluded to in 1 John 2:1-29, as the Unction or Anointing, thus giving even to the little children a capacity which enables them to know the truth; but now we are thinking of Him as the Spirit by whom Christ abides in us so that we may manifest Him here. He was also dwelling here in order that He might give utterance to the Word of God. This He did at the beginning through the apostles and prophets whom He inspired. He is the power by whom the Word of God is given, as well as the power by whom it is received.

This fact furnished the “antichrists” with a point of attack. These earliest “antichrists” were known as gnostics, a word which signified, the knowing ones. They too would speak by power that was obviously of a spirit. They claimed that they knew, and set up their ideas in opposition to that which had been revealed through the apostles. It was because of this that the Apostle digresses a little from his main theme in the opening verses of chapter 4.

The digression was important in that day, and it is no less important in ours, as we shall see.


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on 1 John 3:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2020
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