The Portrait of Fellowship
Before he closes chapter 2 the apostle reverts to all the family of God when he says, ‘Little children, abide in him’. With the manifestation of Christ before us, we serve the Lord. Sharing the apostle’s anticipation of that happy event, having this confidence, in spite of our unworthiness we shall not be ashamed before Him at His coming, v. 28. John next outlines the recognizable hallmark of the children of God, which is practising righteousness as a matter of habit, because intuitively we know that Christ is righteous, 2. 29.
From this point the theme of Christian fellowship takes on a different emphasis, light gives place to love. Love becomes a major issue with the apostle as many in the fellowship of God’s family violate this love principle. He makes great use of the word ‘love’, it appears forty-six times in its different forms in the last three chapters. He commences with ‘Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God’. ‘What manner of is a remarkable expression. Its root significance is not so much, of what kind, or of what measure, but the wonder of this love that has come to us from another country. In another place, Mary uses a similar expression in response to the message of the angel, ‘What manner of salutation is this’? Concerning the Lord Jesus also the disciples said, ‘What manner of man is this’? The message and the man have come from a different region completely.
This ‘other world’ love bestowed on us was to call us into relationship with God as His children. It is a privilege to be incorporated into God’s eternal family.
When the Lord was here, the world did not recognize Him, so it is no wonder that they do not recognize the children of God today. Had the world known him it would be a salutary question for each to ask, would it also recognize us as belonging to Him? With heart affection, John assures us of the reality of being God’s children. He says, ‘Beloved, now are we the children of God’. We do not have to wait till the end of the journey to become the children of God. Born again by the Spirit’s power, cleansed by the blood, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are now members of God’s family; what a marvellous privilege.
It is not yet manifested what we shall be. Our confidence is in this. The moral likeness of chapter 2 verse 29, will incorporate physical likeness when the Lord comes. ‘When he is manifested, we shall be like him’, and, ‘we shall see him as he is’. Can we imagine what an indescribably lovely and ravishing experience a first sight of Him will be? Physical likeness in the future produces moral effect in the present, ‘Every man that hath this hope in (or set upon) him, purifieth himself. The hope of the Lord’s return, of being like Christ and of seeing Him, are tremendous incentives to encourage purity of living. Then we have the perfect example set before us by the apostle, ‘even as he is pure’. To keep close to Christ, following His example, maintains holiness of life and happiness of soul.
The Practice of Fellowship
John will tackle the problem of sin, repeatedly, in this second part of his letter. His concern also is with the believers’ holy living. First he sets the standard, ‘Sin is lawlessness’. To habitually practise sin is to be lawless. In so doing we express our own self-will with no regard for God. Then he takes us back into the past and tells why Christ was manifested. ‘He was manifested to take away our sins’. Sins that were so abhorrent to God, involved One in whom is no sin to take them away. He is the sovereign eraser of our sins.
Christianity is intensely practical with John, and in verses 6 and 7 he deals with matters important in Christian living. A big secret of the Christian life is to keep on abiding in Him. In the New Testament, abiding in Him, produces fruit, brings answers to prayer, encourages personal holiness. Living in daily obedience to Christ will safeguard any Christian from continuing in a habitual practice of sin. His life will constantly correspond to righteousness. Don’t be over-deceived by those who tell you that it doesn’t matter; doing what is right proves that we are righteous, ‘even as he is righteous’.
The second purpose stated for the Son of God’s manifestation here in the world is, ‘that he might destroy the works of the devil’, v. 8. John begins by saying, ‘He that committeth sin is of the devil’, that is, out of the devil as to source and character. The devil made no one, he begot no one, but whoever imitates him by doing sin as he does, is, as it were, a child of the devil. The devil sinneth from the beginning and he cannot do anything else but sin. Therefore Christ came to destroy the works of the devil, that is, to make void, render inoperative, the deception and misrepresentation of God, which Satan began first in the garden which God planted in Eden.
Three things characterize the children of God. ‘He that is born of God doth not commit sin’, v. 9. This is a difficult statement, but we can see first that it sates a fact. Born of God describes those addressed by John. ‘As many as received him to them gave he the power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name’, John 1. 12. Then we see an effect, ‘cannot sin’. John has been saying in chapter 2. 1, ‘if any man sin’. Now in verse 6 he does not sin; finally, ‘he cannot sin’. What is the answer to the difficulty? The secret is in the next little phrase, ‘Because his seed remaineth in him’. The seed is the divine life imparted at conversion by the quickening power of the Spirit. Believers identified with the divine life, sometimes called the new nature cannot sin. ‘The seed’ as Peter reminds us, is incorruptible seed. When any sin comes about, we do it as identified with the old nature, the new nature, cannot sin. ‘We should love one another’, v. 11. Here, the message the apostles brought was not the message of the law, ‘love thy neighbour as yourself, but the message associated with God’s family, ‘love one another’. Love is a fundamental thing. It is the first lesson taught in the primary class of God’s school, and becomes the priority of Christian behaviour. Love is a natural thing. Are we surprised to find Christian brethren acting in an unbrotherly way towards one another? Alas, this is not an uncommon thing in many companies, ‘Sirs, ye are brethren; why do ye wrong to one another?’ Acts 7. 26. Finally, love is an evidential thing, by it ‘we know that we have passed from death to life’, v. 14. Here is the mark by which we can test ourselves as whether we are of God. Do we love the brethren?
‘Hated by the world’, v. 13. Here is the final mark of true children of God in this section. The apostle is thinking of the Cain world in its hatred of righteousness because of its evil works. Don’t be surprised to find the world hates you. The feature of the devil’s children is simply, ‘doeth not righteousness’ and ‘loveth not his brother’, v. 10. John uses Cain to illustrate his point, ‘Cain was of that wicked one, and slew his brother’, v. 12. Cain’s evil works brought to a head and exposed his evil character. In his hatred of Abel’s righteous works he rose and killed him. Hatred in the heart, in principle, is just the same as murder. We must remember that God considers the heart and motives not just the actions. Hatred and murder, says John, cannot co-exist with eternal life in the one person, v. 15.
Love is a sacrificial thing, ‘hereby perceive we love … because he laid down his life for us’. We leave out the words ‘of God’ to give better sense to this tremendous statement; God’s Son voluntarily laid down His life, in vicarious sacrifice for us who were unworthy objects. The corollary to that is ‘we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’, v. 16. Paul could say of Aquila and Priscilla, ‘Who have for my life laid down their own necks’, Rom. 16. 3-4. John applies the principle of verse 16 in a practical way. To have this world’s goods and see a brother in need while refusing to meet that need, is not loving your brother. A certain priest, his duty completed in the temple, went on his way home; he saw the man, stripped and wounded and half dead, but he did not care; he took no heed to the desperate need, and passed on. The Levite following was worse, he did take trouble to go and look at the man, but exclaiming, ‘poor fellow!’ went on his way. John says to that kind of attitude, ‘How dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth’, vv. 17-18.
Against that background the apostle speaks of living our lives regulated by truth. As a result, we experience confidence in the presence of God. If our hearts condemn us in His presence, because of insincerity in love, God is greater than our hearts. Where there is sincerity in loving, shown in meeting need where need is, ‘whatsoever we ask, we receive of him’. Keeping His commandment is the atmosphere in which prayer flourishes. God’s commandment is, ‘That we should believe on the name of his son Jesus Christ’, while the Son commands us, ‘to love one another’.