1 John chapter 3 – Part 5
Ken Totton, Cambridge, England
Cycle 2: Revelation of the Children of God
Chapter 2 verse 29 marks a new cycle in the letter. The previous cycle described the eternal life introduced in the Prologue, 1. 1-4, in terms of fellowship with divine Persons and one another. In Cycle 2 the twin focus on the family of God on the one hand, and the world on the other is maintained, but with further development of ideas. Our behaviour constitutes a true test of whose children we are – either God’s or the devil’s. Socially, the brotherly love of the Christian is brought out. As far as opposition is concerned, the world is seen not now in its seductive potential, drawing away our affection from the Father, but rather in its settled hatred of, and hostility to, the believer. Just as Cycle 1 ends with warnings of ‘antichrists’, 2. 18-28, Cycle 2 ends1 with warnings about ‘false spirits’, 4. 1-6. As the cycle proceeds we encounter further forthright moral and social tests of our Christian profession.
The Character of God’s Children: Test – Righteousness, 2. 29 – 3. 10a
The Children of God and their Hope, 2. 29 – 3. 3
The second cycle starts at the climax of the first: at Christ’s coming, His people will finally be seen for what they already are – children of God.
2. 29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him. The righteousness of God is a fundamental biblical truth.2 In His ‘Sermon on the Mount’ our Lord clearly taught that children of the heavenly Father reproduce His character, Matt 5. 45, 48. To claim to be of that family yet fail to behave accordingly is, therefore, bogus. God is Father only to those in whom He recognizes His own likeness. Moreover, the practice of right living is not simply down to our resolve: for John it follows directly from the new birth, born of Him.
3. 1 Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! In considering the phenomenon of the new birth, and its result of sinful men brought into relationship with God, John is thrilled at the wonder of it all and issues the command: Behold. Reminding us of Paul’s outbursts of praise,3 John writes with his soul full of worship and adoring wonder. There is surely a lesson here that truth rightly grasped should not merely inform the mind, but move us to praise, and inspire loyal service.
This conferred status that we should be called children of God is a compelling indication of the Father’s love. ‘What manner of’ (Gk. potamos) means literally ‘what foreign or alien kind of’ and implies astonishment (Plummer) and usually admiration (Vine), Matt 8. 27, Mark 13. 1; Luke 1. 29. Those loved with such amazing love should be amazing persons, 2 Pet. 3. 11! John is ransacking vocabulary to find words adequate to describe this unworldly, heavenly love which our Father has shown us. Called (Gk. kaleo), is especially used of titles of honour, which indicate the possession of a certain dignity, Matt 5. 9; Luke 1. 76. The RV, NKJV margin, and others, add on good textual authority4 and such we are: not only do we have the status and dignity of being called the children of God, but we already enjoy the reality – that is what we are, no matter how little the world may understand it.
Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Whilst some take ‘Him’ to refer to the Father, the context points rather to Christ. This is no excuse for secret discipleship, John 19. 38; rather, the verse is teaching that it is no great surprise that the world does not recognize believers for what they are and their high destiny – the world did not even recognize the Son of God when He came.5
v. 2 Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be. We are already the children of God. In contrast to Paul who brings out the truth of sonship by adoption, throughout John’s writings believers are designated children, hence the section headings throughout this exposition. He focuses on their generation by the new birth. ‘Son’ (Gk. huios) is a term reserved by John for Christ alone, the Only-begotten. It has not yet been manifested what we shall be. There is, however, an ongoing work of sanctification in the believer’s experience, beholding the glory of Christ, and then ‘reflecting it as in a mirror’, thus being ‘transfigured into his likeness’, 2 Cor. 3. 18.
but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. The sight of the glorified Christ will completely transform us6 into His image: ‘And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’, 1 Cor. 15. 49.
v. 3 And everyone who has this hope in Him (Christ) purifies himself, just as He (Christ) is pure. The hope of the believer is set on Christ. There is emphasis here on ‘He’ (Gr. ekeinos) 2. 6; 3. 3, 7 – Christ is the epitome of purity: what is true of Christ in the absolute should be true of the believer progressively. The verb ‘purify’ (Gk. hagnizo) is used in the Old Testament of priestly purification, but here carries a moral and ethical sense. He whose goal is the coming of Christ will constantly examine himself for that which defiles, ‘resisting every defiling influence and keeping oneself free from it’ (Vine). Again, we have a test of authentic Christianity.
The Children of God and the Character of Sin, 3. 4-10a
In this section the apostle continues to unfold a moral test for the children of God. We encounter a number of compelling reasons why the life of a Christian must always be opposed to sin:
- in view of the essential nature of sin, v. 4;
- in view of the Person and work of Christ, vv. 5, 7;
- in view of the divine origin of the believer’s life, vv. 9-10a;
- the devil is the source of sin, vv. 8-10a.
In these verses it is highly likely that John has in mind the perverse claims of false teachers. On the one hand some were claiming that their supposed advancement had made them perfect, 1. 10. Others were maintaining that sin did not matter, because it could not harm the ‘enlightened’. In view of this latter position, John asserts the utter incompatibility of sin in the Christian. It should be borne in mind that the preceding context is that of future absolute, and present progressive, conformity to the Son of God, vv. 2, 3. Our behaviour reveals whose family we belong to!
Whoever commits sin , v. 4
He who sins, v. 7
The (1) nature, and (2) origin, of sin
Sin is lawlessness, v. 4
Devil is the origin of sin, v8
Purpose of Christ’s manifestation
He was manifested to take away our sins, v. 5
That He might destroy the works of the devil.
Whoever abides in Him, v. 6
His [God’s] seed remains [abides] in him, v. 9
Whoever abides in Him does not sin, v. 6
Whoever has been born of God does not sin, v. 9
He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous, v. 7b
Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, v. 10
v. 4 Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. To commit sin (lit. ‘do sin’, 3. 8, 9) is the direct opposite of verse 3. John starkly exposes the nature of sin: sin is lawlessness. Lawlessness (Gk. anomia) might even be rendered ‘rebellion’, or ‘defiance’. Gnostic opponents7 claimed that their enlightenment put them at a level above the demands of the moral law, hence anomia, disregard of law, rebellion. Thus, the first compelling reason why sin is incompatible with Christianity stems from the defiant nature of sin. The second reason arises from the mission of Christ, not simply His death (central as that was), but His entire mission.
v. 5 And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, ‘manifestation’ clearly implies Christ’s eternal pre-existence, 1. 1. The purpose of the mission of the Son of God was to take away sins, John 1. 29. This implies bearing sins, 1 Pet. 2. 24, and in so doing, their complete removal, Heb. 9. 26. How can any professing Christian be casual about sins when their removal required the incarnation and death of none other than the Son of God?
and in Him there is no sin. The original word order puts the emphasis on ‘in Him’, and the present tense is to be noted. There never was, and never will be, sin in Him, compare 2 Cor. 5. 21; 1 Pet. 2. 22. Further, and significantly, He is the One to whom we are to be conformed, 3. 2.
v. 6 Whoever abides in Him: This statement picks up the ‘in Him’ from the previous verse. The privilege of the believer is to abide in communion with One in whom there is no sin, 2. 28. Does not sin (Gk. hamartanei): ‘no one who abides in him keeps on sinning’ ESV. The present tense has a continuous force, notably in contrast to the tense used in chapter 2 verse 1 to imply the possibility of isolated sin.8 John writes against the background of opponents’ false claims that sin did not matter because it could not harm the ‘enlightened’ ones, and asserts the utter incompatibility of sin in the Christian.
Not only has the habitual sinner failed to ‘abide’, the diagnosis is much more radical and serious: Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. In contrast to literal sight, 3. 2, to ‘see’ Him in this sense is to be spiritually conscious of His presence, John 16. 16b; to ‘know’ Him is to appreciate His character and relationship to us, John 17. 25.
v. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Again, John issues a loving, earnest, and urgent appeal, compare Gal. 4. 19. The implication is that deceivers are active, with their high sounding claims and speculative theology. The ordinary believer must be on his guard.
He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He (Christ) is righteous. ‘To do righteousness’ is a familiar expression of John’s, see 2. 29; 3. 7, 10. The deceptive reasonings of those in error probably suggested that one could be ‘right’ before God without being particularly concerned about right conduct. John will have none of it! ‘Doing is the test of Being’ (Law), and Christ is the perfect embodiment of righteousness.
v. 8 He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. To ‘do sin’ is not the isolated act, but the ongoing pattern of an unbeliever’s life, 3. 4, 9. In the great moral battle, there is no third option as regards our allegiance, 5. 19. The devil has been a consistent and habitual sinner from the beginning (of sin, the devil’s fall), John 8. 44. Those who behave like him reveal their allegiance.
For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Balancing the teaching of verse 5, another vital truth is put forward.9 The entire mission of the Son of God is to unloose, dissolve, undo the works of the devil. These ‘works’ refer to the vast set of strategies and activities designed by Satan to ensnare and enslave human beings, thus diverting their allegiance from the proper worship of God to himself.10
v. 9 Whoever has been born of God does not sin, John finally appeals to the divine origin of the believer’s life, born of God. Such a one ‘does not practise sin’, JND. Again, it is not the isolated act of sin which is envisaged, but the settled habit of it.11 Why is this so? The answer is: for His (God’s) seed remains (lit. abides) in him. The idea is taken from human reproduction. Our inherited characteristics derive from a father’s seed (Gk. sperma), and this genetic stamp cannot be undone; it is fundamental to who we are.12
and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God. Render ‘he cannot keep on sinning’ ESV. The verb ‘to sin’ is in the present tense, and does not mean ‘cannot commit a sin’ which would conflict with 1. 8-10; rather ‘is not able to sin habitually’.
v. 10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, In summary, crystal clear lines of distinction are drawn by John. There is no middle ground, no alternative morality, or third way, irrespective of what sophisticated teachers may suggest. As our Lord taught, ‘You will know them by their fruits’, Matt. 7. 16-20.
As we leave this vitally important and deeply challenging passage,13 John’s teaching that a believer does not habitually sin must not be taken to excuse occasional forays into sin, provided one does not stay there.14 Such a suggestion would be diametrically opposed to the whole purpose of the section.
The Character of God’s Children: Test – Love for the Children of God, 3.10b - 24
Verse 10 is an example of a ‘hinge’ verse marking a subtle transition to a new focus. In this section, the manifestation of the character of God’s true child is that he loves the other members of the divine family – a social test. Sadly, love is one of the most devalued virtues in the world today. But here John speaks of divine love demonstrated to its utmost degree in the sacrifice of Christ. For the believer, love is not a matter of getting along well with certain favourites, but a holy determination to love all of God’s dear children because they belong to Him. On the other hand, John unmasks the character of the world, not now as a seductive power, but in its alienation from God and settled hostility to the Christian. The section can be considered as follows:
- Love distinguishes the children of God, vv. 11-12;
- Love is the evidence of being truly born again, vv. 13-15;
- Love has a sense of obligation, vv. 16-18;
- Love can be a source of confidence before God, vv. 19-22;
- Love will produce obedience, vv. 23, 24.
v. 10 In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. The first half of this verse has been considered in the previous section. How we relate to our fellow-believers constitutes a vital social test of our profession. It is very likely that the apostle’s opponents despised those who were outside their circle. ‘Brother’, is clearly the characteristic term for believers in this section, implying mutual love in a way that ‘child’ does not, vv. 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18.
v. 11 For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. These words recall the teaching of chapter 2 verse 7, a precise structural correspondence with Cycle 1’s social test of walking in the light – Love for the children of God (see ‘Structure - 1 John’, in the ‘Introduction’). You points to the converts and from the beginning refers to their earliest Christian instruction, 2. 7. John and his associates faithfully communicated the Lord’s commandment for His church, John 13. 34. In a contentious age, marked by sad divisions among God’s people, how we need to grasp this imperative with fresh power!
v. 12 not as Cain who was of the wicked one and murdered his brother. There is another family – those of the world – frequently marked by hatred, bitterness, and even murder. Note carefully that Cain was not an atheist, but may well have been respectable, and religious in his way. Yet, when Abel’s sacrifice was accepted by God, he was consumed with envy, and his devilish, and murderous character was revealed, Gen. 4. 4-8. And why did he murder him? John’s question indicates shock and surprise, pointing to Cain’s causeless hatred, compare Ps. 69. 4; John 15. 25.15 Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous. The man who presumed to worship God in his self-styled way hated, to the point of murder, the godly man who through faith knew the joy of acceptance with God, Heb. 11. 4. As in the previous section, the focus is on the whole pattern of life. It was not simply that Abel correctly offered a blood sacrifice; Abel was already a believer whose works were righteous. Conversely, Cain’s works were evil, albeit under the guise of religion.
v. 13 Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates16 you. John is not seeking to promote a ‘siege mentality’ in his readers with the expectation that every person they meet will hate and oppose them! After all, we are sent into the world as part of Christ’s ongoing mission, John 17. 18. Rather, he is teaching that the world as a system is invariably hostile toward the child of God.17 This is normal Christian experience. In view of the world’s hostility the following thought supplies welcome consolation:
v. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. How is this a sure indicator of spiritual life? Because the nature of the life of God in the believer is to love. Eternal life promotes love, and vice versa. Literally, ‘we have passed over out of death into life’, compare John 5. 24. The believer has crossed over from one sphere (death) to a radically new one (life). Observe that John’s focus is love of the brethren – those identified by Christ as ‘doers of the will of God’, Mark 3. 34, 35. It may well be that the more our brothers get to know us, and we get acquainted with them, the harder it will be to love. However, this kind of love is made possible only by the new birth. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Absence of love indicates the darkness of one remaining in spiritual death; no saving transition has been made. Love is to life as hate is to death.
v. 15 Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. Hatred destroys people spiritually, emotionally, and even physically. It is essentially the spirit of the killer: our Lord traced the source of murder to uncontrolled anger, Matt. 5. 21, 22. To persistently harbour a spirit of bitter hatred towards a brother or sister is utterly incompatible with the claim to possess the life of the God of love.
v. 16 By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. We see here the mark of true love, and we have an obligation, vv. 16-18. For us, the concept of love (Gk. agape) has been completely redefined by the Lord’s own sacrificial love in that He laid down His life for us. His unique Calvary sacrifice stands complete, historic, and endlessly inspirational.
And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. We are duty bound to lay down our lives for the brothers, i.e., we must follow Christ sacrificially in our love and service.
v. 17 But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? The apostle now provides a contrast by way of a concrete domestic example. A brother has this world’s goods (lit. ‘the means of life’, Gk. bios) and beholds, RV, his brother in need, that is, not just a passing glance, but consciously shuts up (lit. turns the key, locks) his heart. Presumably, the concern is the cost involved, cp. Luke 10. 31, 32. The ongoing heartlessness of the rich man towards Lazarus’ suffering provides a pertinent illustration, Luke 16. 20, 21. No wonder we read the indignant question: how does the love of God abide in him?
v. 18 My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. ‘Love in word’ may be genuine, but lacking the necessary conviction to carry it into action, and ‘actions speak louder than words’. It is possible, of course, to have deeds without love, 1 Cor. 13. 3, but, like James, Jas. 2. 15, 16, John highlights the contrast in vigorous comparative terms. If I cannot share even the basic means of life, how can I contemplate the greater obligation of laying down my life for the brothers, v. 16?
v. 19 And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. The thought of assurance leads to confidence in prayer, vv. 19-22; the root of the assurance looks back to v. 14. Throughout the letter the apostle shows pastoral wisdom and sensitivity. He senses the doubts that invade even the minds of the godly. One of the things that can reassure the believer is evidence of devoted service to the saints for the Lord’s sake. It becomes a reason for confidence before God, Acts 24. 16.
v. 20 For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. This sentence is to be read as an encouragement, not a threat. Just as Peter found comfort in the fact that Christ knows all things, John 21. 17, God is greater, that is, He is a better Judge than our heart. Unlike us, He has a complete perspective – perfect knowledge of us and all the relevant circumstances.
v. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. Doubts and anxieties can hinder us in our walk and affect our prayer life. Confidence is the same word as in chapter 2 verse 28, but here relating to present experience. It means boldness, freedom of speaking, but always with due awe of God, Heb. 10. 19.
v. 22 And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. In such a relationship with God we will be asking ‘according to His will’, 5. 14. As the psalmist could say, ‘Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart’, Ps. 37. 4; see also John 9. 31. We receive (present tense) – the request is given, Matt. 7. 7, 8; however, in the wisdom of God’s purpose we may not see the answer immediately. To ‘keep’ His commandments is to be on watch to obey and fulfill, i.e., active obedience. To do those things that are pleasing in His sight was Christ’s constant joy, and significantly is linked to communion with the Father, John 8. 29.
v. 23 And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Believing and living, doctrine and practice here go hand in hand. ‘The Father’s commandment is the commandment of faith and love’ (Bruce). The aorist tense of the verb ‘believe’ points to the faith exercised at conversion, that, in turn, leads to the life of faith. But the life of faith is also the life of love, 2. 7, 8; John 13. 34; 15. 12.
v. 24 Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. Mutual abiding is the strongest expression of vital spiritual union with God and Christ, 4. 13, 16; John 6. 56; 15. 4, 5. This is not mysticism, but rather is objectively associated with keeping His commandments. Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him’, John 14. 23.
And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. It is by the Holy Spirit that God sublimely indwells the believer. As Paul put it, ‘The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’, Rom. 8. 16. This is the first explicit mention of the Holy Spirit in the letter,18 and forms a link to the next paragraph which will focus on testing the spirits to distinguish the true from the false.
Two Contrasting Brotherhoods
|Under authority of||
Son of God
|Animated by||Spirit of God||spirits of falsehood|
|Attitude to believers||love||hate|
- The letter ends with an abrupt warning about idols (‘false gods’, New English Bible), thus completing a Trinitarian pattern.
- Pss. 11. 7; 129. 4; 145. 17.
- Rom. 11. 33-36; Eph. 3. 20-21.
- See discussion in B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Stuttgart, United Bible Societies, 1975, pgs. 710-711.
- John 1. 11; 16. 3; 1 Cor. 2. 8. The leaders of religion maintained that He could not possibly be the Messiah given (among other things) His association with the needy and the outcasts, Luke 7. 34, 39.
- ‘If progressive assimilation to the likeness of their Lord results from their present beholding Him through a glass darkly, to behold Him face to face, “to see Him even as He is”, will result in their being perfectly like Him’, F. F. Bruce.
- See ‘Introduction’ on heresies.
- In 1 John 2. 1 the Greek aorist tense is used to mark an isolated event, in contrast to the significant use of the present tense in chapter 3. The latter has continuous force denoting habitual behaviour, a pattern of life.
- For ‘destroy’, see John 2. 19; 5. 18; 7. 23; 10. 35.
- ‘The works of the devil are represented as having a certain consistency and coherence. They show a kind of solid front. Christ has undone the seeming bonds by which they were held together’, B. F. Westcott.
- Indicated by the verb poiein, to do or to practise which is used of ‘doing’ sin in verses 4a, 8 and 9, of ‘doing’ lawlessness in verse 4b, and of ‘doing’ righteousness in 2. 29, 3. 7, 10a’, J. R. W. Stott.
- The RSV renders helpfully: ‘God’s nature abides in him’. Through the new birth, the believer is a ‘partaker of the divine nature’, 2 Pet. 1. 4; from this perspective, to practice sin would be completely unnatural for the believer.
- Students of 1 John recognize this as one of the most controversial passages in the Epistle. It is not possible within the limitations of this introductory exposition to spell out the variant interpretations, and justify the view adopted here which is substantially supported by Bruce, Morris, Hiebert, Vine, Stott, to name but a few. A helpful and balanced summary of the different approaches can be found in Stott, pgs. 134-140.
- Orr, R. W., ‘The Letters of John’ in New International Bible Commentary, ed. F. F. Bruce, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979, pg. 1579.
- Joseph and David provide further examples of innocent suffering, Gen. 37. 8; 1 Sam. 24. 16, 17.
- The verb is in the present tense and indicative mood, not subjunctive. The point is that there is no uncertainty: the world does hate the godly, 2 Tim. 3. 12.
- The reason for this was seen in the Master’s own experience, ‘The world . . . hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil’, John 7. 7. He said, with reference to His people, ‘The world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world’, John 17. 14.
- Although the ‘Anointing’ is referred to in chapter 2 verses 20, 27.