This 25 part expository study of 1 John was preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship in 2005-06. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
Hardly a day goes by when I do not delete numerous spam emails trying to get me to purchase a fake Rolex watch or college diploma. Other emails promise that I will receive millions of dollars from a total stranger, usually in Africa. I recently read in Reader’s Digest about a guy that was taken in by this type of scam. I was surprised that he allowed his real name and picture to appear in the magazine. I would have been too embarrassed to show my face!
Most of these phony deals are easy to spot. But far more serious than losing some money to con artists would be to lose your soul because you bought into a false religion. Satan always has made sure that numerous spiritual con artists thrive at their trade. Paul warned the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11:13-15),
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.
It’s not easy to spot an angel of light or servant of righteousness in disguise! That’s why the New Testament abounds with warnings about false teachers. It’s easy to be led astray. In his final words to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:29-30), Paul predicted, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.” In what are to me the most frightening words in the New Testament, Jesus warned (Matt. 7:21-23),
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’”
These repeated warnings mean that we must be very careful to make sure that our Christian faith is true, both objectively and personally. We need to know that Christianity is objectively true, that the testimony about Jesus Christ is genuine and not the work of spiritual con artists. And, we need to know that our personal faith in Christ is genuine faith, not the false faith that results in hearing on judgment day, “I never knew you; depart from Me….” Since our eternal destiny is at stake, we need to know that we have the real deal, not a phony substitute!
The aged apostle John wrote First John against the backdrop of influential false teachers to help his readers know that their faith was genuine and that they possessed eternal life in Jesus Christ. John Stott writes (The Epistles of John, Tyndale Bible Commentaries [Eerdmans], p. 42), “His great emphasis is on the differences between the genuine Christian and the spurious, and how to discern between the two.” He adds (p. 50), “The predominant theme of these Epistles is Christian certainty.” Stott points out that the Greek verb (ginosko) that means, “to know by observation and experience” occurs 15 times and the word (oida) meaning, “to know by reflection” is used 25 times. The verb (phaneroo), “to make known” is used nine times (and the noun once), and the noun (parresia), “confidence” is used four times. John wants us to know some things with certainty!
I agree with the consensus of scholars that the apostle John wrote these three epistles late in his life near the end of the first century. John had moved to Ephesus, on the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Perhaps Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders some thirty years before had come to pass. A number of false teachers had arisen in the churches of that area. John uses strong terms to describe these men, showing that they were not true Christians who merely had different opinions on some minor matters. He calls them “false prophets” (4:1), “antichrists” (2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7), “liars” (2:22), and “deceivers” (2 John 7; 1 John 2:26 [verb]). He repeatedly implies or states that they are not of God (4:6), but are from the devil (3:8, 10); they are from the world (4:5); and, they do not know God (3:6; 4:6).
Their purpose was to deceive the Christians on important matters of doctrine and practice. He states (2:26), “These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you” (see also, 2 John 7). They had at one time been in the church, but they had left to form their own churches, based on their supposedly “enlightened” view of things. John writes (2:19), “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”
Probably they had taken a number of church members with them and they were actively recruiting from those who had not left with them. They probably said, “We used to believe just as you do, but we’ve moved to something better. We have deeper knowledge than we used to have. Come and check it out!” Whenever that sort of thing happens, it creates a lot of confusion and disruption in the church. Those who remain in the church begin to wonder, “Could those people be right? Am I missing something? How can we know that we’re right?” Those who leave are critical of the church leaders and point out imperfections in the church. Those who stay behind begin to notice these flaws. Pretty soon, the entire church is engulfed in turmoil.
Although John never identifies himself by name or calls himself an apostle, he writes with strong apostolic authority. He was the “apostle of love” and he was pushing ninety, but he confronts the false teachers and their errors head on! He begins by asserting that he knows what he is talking about, because he was there with Jesus from the start. He had heard Him, seen Him, and even touched Him (1:1), and the message that he was proclaiming was none other than that which he and his fellow apostles had received directly from Jesus Christ (1:2-3, 5).
John does not paint in subtle tones, but in bold black and white. He makes many exclusive, either-or statements. Note 1:6: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” Or (1:8), “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Or (2:4), “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
He says that either you love the world or you love the Father, but not both (2:15). Either you have the Father and the Son or you don’t (2:22-23). Either you are born of God and do not practice sin or you are not born of God and do practice sin (3:6-9). Either you are a child of God and love your brother or you’re a child of the devil and hate your brother (3:10-12). There are other examples, but they all add up to show that John isn’t subtle. He paints the two options in bold relief so that if anyone is in the middle, he will be forced to commit himself to the truth or walk knowingly into error. He was not in favor of modifying foundational truths to fit the times (see 2:24).
Just who were these false teachers and what was the heart of their error? We cannot know for certain, but we can make some educated guesses based on John’s direct references to their teaching, as well as the positive emphasis that he feels is necessary to counteract it. It’s kind of like we’re listening to one side of a phone conversation and trying to figure out what the other party was saying based on what we hear. Here’s what we can figure out:
These false teachers were propagating a three-fold error. First, there was a doctrinal error regarding the person of Jesus Christ. They denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22). This probably did not mean that they denied that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but rather that they denied His divine Sonship (2:23; 4:15). Also, they denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. John warns (4:2), “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (see also, 2 John 7). In other words, they denied that Jesus was God in human flesh. These heretics also claimed to be more progressive than the apostles, and that they had the Father without the Son (2 John 9; 1 John 2:22-23). Most theological errors go astray on the person and/or work of Christ, because these subjects are essential to the Christian faith.
The second main error of these heretics was ethical or moral. As we saw in James 5:19-20, theological errors usually go hand in hand with moral errors. These heretics either denied that sin exists in our nature and practice or they said that sin does not matter since it does not interfere with our fellowship with God. John soundly refutes this in 1:5-10. These teachers were antinomian (“against the law”), saying, “We know Christ, but we aren’t hung up with all of these commandments! We’re free in Christ and don’t worry about mere rules!” But, as F. F. Bruce points out (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 26), “Christians stand on the brink of disaster when they begin to modify the adjective ‘ethical’ with the adverb ‘merely.’” John soundly refutes this moral error, beginning in 2:3-6.
The third error of the heretics was relational: while undoubtedly they claimed to be loving (who would not?), in practice they did not demonstrate genuine, biblical love for others. Probably their claim to special, deeper knowledge caused them to come across with arrogance. They were hostile and intolerant of those who didn’t agree with them. Greed caused them to not care for the needy in practical ways (3:16-18).
Who were these men (historically)? While there is much debate, many scholars identify them as Cerinthian Gnostics. Gnosticism was the philosophical blend of various pagan, Jewish, and semi-Christian systems of thought. Its two main tenets were dualism and illumination. Dualism meant that all matter is evil and spirit is good. Since matter is evil, a good God could not have created the material universe. Hence the Gnostics posited a series of emanations from the Supreme Being, each a bit more removed, until one who was sufficiently remote created the world. Since matter is evil, they could not conceive of how God could take on a human body subject to pain, suffering, and death. Thus they denied the incarnation.
Cerinthus was a Gnostic living in Ephesus. The early church father, Polycarp, who knew John, told a story about the apostle going to bathe at the public bathhouse in Ephesus, when he learned that Cerinthus was inside. John rushed out without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bathhouse fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within” (in Stott, p. 46).
Cerinthus taught that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but was the natural son of Joseph and Mary. He was a very good and righteous man. At His baptism, “the Christ” descended on him in the form of a dove from the Supreme Ruler. Jesus then proclaimed the unknown Father and performed miracles. At last, the Christ departed from Jesus and the human Jesus suffered, died, and rose again, while the Christ remained untouched, since He is a spirit being. So Cerinthus separated the man Jesus from the divine Christ.
It would seem that John wrote the doctrinal part of his letter against these pernicious errors. This is especially in focus in 5:6, “This is the One who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood.” John is asserting that the Christ came not only through His baptism (water), but also through His death (blood). You cannot separate the humanity of Jesus from His deity.
The Gnostic dualism also led to some moral aberrations. On the one hand, since they thought that matter is evil, some Gnostics practiced strict asceticism, which is the attempt to be righteous by harsh treatment of the body. Others reasoned that since the enlightened spirit is separate from the evil body, morality does not matter. So they claimed to be righteous in spirit even while they indulged the flesh. John repeatedly confronts this error.
The other main feature of Gnosticism was illumination. They claimed that the way to salvation was through secret enlightenment. Only the initiated, who knew their secret theories, were in the light. This exclusive mentality led them to despise unenlightened outsiders. It produced an arrogant lack of love. John repeatedly shows that genuine love is the mark of all who believe in the Savior who gave Himself for us on the cross.
Thus John had a two-fold purpose in writing: First, he had a polemical purpose, to attack and refute the errors of Cerinthian Gnosticism. He exposes and refutes their doctrinal errors about the person of Christ. He refutes their ethical error (that obedience doesn’t matter) by showing that the one who says he abides in Christ must walk as Christ walked (2:6). And, he attacks the loveless arrogance of the false teachers by showing that true believers must love one another as Christ has loved us.
John’s second purpose was pastoral. He wanted to cultivate assurance of who Jesus Christ is, assurance of salvation and genuine fellowship with God and with one another among his “little children” (he uses this term 7 times out of 8 in the New Testament; John 13:33 is the only exception). Regarding Jesus Christ, John wants his flock to know with assurance who Jesus Christ is and why He came. He is the eternal Son of God, sent by the Father to be the Savior of the world (not just of the exclusive, enlightened few; 2:2; 4:14).
He assures them of this truth through three witnesses. First, the historical events witness to Jesus Christ. He was sent (4:9, 10, 14), He came (5:20), and He was manifested in the flesh (1:2; 3:5, 8; 4:2). Second, the apostolic testimony witnesses to Jesus Christ. The apostles had firsthand, eyewitness evidence of His reality (1:1-3; 4:14). Third, the Holy Spirit gives inner witness of the truth about Jesus Christ to every believer, corroborating the external witness (2:20, 27; 3:24; 4:13; 5:7, 8). John wants his children to be assured about the truth of Jesus Christ.
John also wants to cultivate assurance about eternal life. He wants his children to know that they have eternal life. This includes knowing that they know Jesus Christ (2:3; 5:20) and that they are in Him (2:5-6; 4:13; 5:20). They can know that they are of the truth (3:19) and are of God (5:19). They can know that they have passed out of death into life (3:14). John sums up his purpose (5:13), “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
John’s third pastoral purpose was to cultivate genuine fellowship with God and with other believers. He wants to bring his readers into the circle of apostolic fellowship, which is with the Father and the Son (1:3-4, 6). And, he wants them genuinely to love one another (2:3-11).
John does not structure his letter in a logical, closely reasoned style, as Paul often does. John is more intuitive, speaking as a bold witness. Many commentators say that it is impossible adequately to outline John’s argument. Others argue that it follows a spiral form, repeating themes for emphasis. I cobbled together my outline by borrowing from several others, along with my own analysis of the flow of thought. (See last two pages.) John’s overall theme is:
We can be assured of the authenticity of our faith if we enjoy fellowship with God based on the truth about Jesus Christ, resulting in a lifestyle of obedience and love.
Have you bought into true Christianity, or could your faith be a cheap, phony substitute? John gives you three test questions:
Is the whole process permeated with the joy of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ? Your eternal destiny rides on passing the test! If any of these areas is lacking, our studies in 1 John should help get you ready for the big final exam.
(See outline on next two pages.)
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Pastor Steven J. Cole
We can be assured of the authenticity of our faith if we enjoy fellowship with God based on the truth about Jesus Christ, resulting in a lifestyle of obedience and love.
1. Authentic faith enjoys fellowship with the Father and the Son (1:1-2:2).
A. Prologue: the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ should lead us into authentic fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1:1-4).
B. The practice of authentic fellowship requires walking in the light, relating to the holy God through the blood of Jesus Christ, our Advocate (1:5-2:2).
(1). God is absolutely holy (1:5).
(2). To have fellowship with the holy God, we must walk in the light, confessing all of our sins (1:6-10).
(3). When we do sin, Jesus Christ is our Advocate, based on His shed blood (2:1-2).
2. Authentic faith may be tested by belief in the truth about Jesus Christ, obedience to His commands, and love for His people (2:3-5:5).
A. The first application of the tests (2:3-27):
(1). Authentic faith obeys God’s commandments (2:3-6).
(2). Authentic faith loves God’s people (2:7-11).
(3). Assuring clarification: John’s readers have authentic faith (2:12-14).
(4). Authentic faith is not of the world, but rather it knows and believes the truth about Jesus Christ (2:15-27).
(a). Authentic faith is not of the world (2:15-17).
(b). Authentic faith, in contrast with the false teachers, knows and believes the truth about Jesus Christ (2:18-27).
B. The second application of the tests (2:28-4:6):
(1). Authentic faith practices a lifestyle of obedience to God (2:28-3:10).
(2). Authentic faith practices a lifestyle of practical love for God’s people (3:11-18).
(3). Assuring clarification: a lifestyle of obedience and love will assure our hearts before God (3:19-22).
(4). Authentic faith believes in Jesus Christ in accord with the apostolic witness (3:23-4:6).
(a). Authentic faith believes in Jesus Christ and practices love and obedience (3:23-24).
(b). Authentic faith, in contrast with the false teachers, believes that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh in accord with the apostolic witness (4:1-6).
B. The third application of the tests (4:7-5:5):
(1). Authentic faith practices a lifestyle of love for God’s people, based on God’s great love for us (4:7-12).
(2). Authentic faith believes the apostolic witness about Jesus Christ, experiences the love of God, is assured before God, and practices love for God’s people (4:13-21).
(a). Authentic faith believes the apostolic witness about Jesus Christ (4:13-15).
(b). Authentic faith experiences the love of God (4:16).
(c). Assuring clarification: authentic faith has confidence in the day of judgment because of God’s love (4:17-18).
(d). Authentic faith practices love for God’s people, based on His love (4:19-21).
(3). Authentic faith believes that Jesus is the Christ, loves those born of God, and obeys God’s commandments (5:1-5).
(a). Authentic faith believes that Jesus is the Christ (5:1).
(b). Authentic faith loves those born of God (5:2).
(c). Authentic faith obeys God’s commandments, stemming from faith in Jesus Christ (5:3-5).
3. Authentic faith is assured of eternal life (5:6-21).
A. Authentic faith is assured of eternal life because we believe in God’s testimony concerning His Son (5:6-12).
B. Authentic faith is assured of eternal life because we believe all that John has written in this letter (5:13).
C. Authentic faith is assured of eternal life because we experience answers to our prayers (5:14-17).
D. Authentic faith is assured of eternal life because we know God and are separate from the world and its idols (5:18-21).
If you were to go into the streets and ask, “What is Christianity?” you’d probably get a wide range of answers. Some might say that it is a system of thought or morality. Others might call it a religious organization. Those who are bitter against the church may say that it’s an evil system of repression. Even if you were to limit your question to those who make a claim to be some sort of Christian, I’d guess that you would get a wide range of answers.
The same would be true if you asked, “Who do you think Jesus Christ is?” Many would say that He was a great religious teacher or a good man. Some may identify Him as the founder of Christianity. Some may even say, correctly, that He is the Son of God, but they would be hard pressed to explain what that means.
It’s no accident that there is such confusion on the essence of true Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. These are foundational issues. If you have a shaky foundation, it does not matter if the rest of the building is impressive—you’ve got a shaky building! And so Satan has tried to confuse people about true Christianity.
He’s been at it for centuries. Before the first century church was sixty years old, Satan had moved in to cause confusion. As we saw last week, many false teachers had arisen in the churches of Asia Minor, where the aged apostle John labored. They had left the churches and taken followers with them (1 John 2:19). They claimed to have the real truth about Christ and Christianity. So the apostle John wrote to his little children in the faith, to make sure that they were clear on the essence of true Christianity. He wanted them to spot and resist error and to grow in true fellowship with Jesus Christ.
The enemy is no less active today in stirring up such confusion. There are the cults, of course, with their blatant deviations from the faith. But, also, there are many errors that keep worming their way into Christian circles. Currently, the “new perspective on Paul” seeks to redefine the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The unity movement sets aside the gospel for the sake of unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. “Open Theism” challenges God’s omniscience and absolute sovereignty. Arminianism in effect makes man sovereign over God in the matter of salvation. “Christian” psychology has introduced many errors, including the concept of self-esteem. The list could go on!
John begins his letter by getting right down to business. Except for Hebrews, John’s letters are the only New Testament epistles that begin without an opening salutation. Instead, John begins with a section that is similar to the prologue of his Gospel. Here he begins to counter the false teachers. He shows that…
True Christianity is Jesus Christ—revealed, experienced, and proclaimed with joy.
Christianity is not essentially a system of thought. Rather, it is a person—Jesus Christ—who was historically validated, personally experienced, and authoritatively proclaimed by the apostles. That is the foundation that John lays in these opening verses.
The main foundation of Christianity is not the speculations of men about God, but rather that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. The prime way that He did that is in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the eternal God in human flesh. The only way that we can come to God or know Him is through Jesus Christ. As Jesus said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Or, again Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”
John begins (1:1) by listing five ways that the revelation of Jesus Christ is historically validated. After the first, the last four are in a progression from the least (heard) to the most definite (touched).
Conservative scholars are divided over the interpretation of the first phrase, “what was from the beginning.” Some note the parallel with John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This parallels Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So they interpret this as a reference to the eternality of the Son of God. They argue that this is supported by the phrase in 1 John 1:2, “was with the Father,” and by 2:13, 14, which refers to Jesus as existing “from the beginning.” (John Stott argues for this, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], pp. 58-59.)
Others, however, while not denying the eternality of the Son, argue that that is not John’s meaning here. They would argue that instead the phrase means what it later means in 1 John 2:7, 2:24, and 3:11, namely, the beginning of the gospel. They point out that John’s emphasis here, to counter the recent message of the false teachers, is that the apostolic message has not changed. It is the same message that has been proclaimed from the earliest days of the gospel. Also, the emphasis of the rest of verse 1 is on Christ’s humanity. So John’s point would be that his message is not the new message of the Gnostics. Rather, it is the old message, which has been proclaimed from the earliest days of Christ’s ministry. It is the same message that his readers had heard and believed from the beginning of their Christian experience. (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 35; A. W. Pink, Exposition of 1 John [Associated Publishers & Authors], pp. 7-8; and Robert Law, The Tests of Life [Baker], p. 369, argue for this view.)
It is difficult to decide between these two views, but I lean toward the second view, in that John here seems to be appealing to his apostolic authority, and the fact that he had been with Jesus from the beginning of His earthly ministry. Thus the records of the four Gospels bear witness to the person of Jesus Christ.
“What we have heard” (1:1). John and the other apostles (the “we” of 1:1-4) had heard the very words of Jesus, and what amazing words they were! Even His enemies testified (John 7:46), “Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.” How true! If you are trying to bear witness to someone who has never read the Gospels, direct him to do that. The words of Jesus bear witness of who He is.
“What we have seen with our eyes.” The addition of the phrase, “with our eyes,” shows that John is not talking about a mystical “vision” of Christ, but of actually watching Jesus as He lived before them. The apostles saw Jesus turn the water into wine, feed the 5,000, walk on water, heal the multitudes, and raise the dead. The 35 miracles recorded in the four gospels are only a fraction of those that the apostles witnessed. John (21:25) ends his gospel by stating that if all the things that Jesus did were written in detail, the whole world couldn’t contain the books. Jesus’ sinless life and the powerful miracles He performed validate that He is the unique Son of God.
“What we have looked at.” This is not just a repetition of “what we have seen with our eyes,” but a step further. The Greek verb means, “careful and deliberate vision which interprets its object” (G. Abbott-Smith, A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament [Scribner’s], p. 203). We derive our English word “theater” from it. It is the word that John (1:14) uses in his gospel, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John was especially referring to his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, when he and Peter and James saw Jesus’ glory unveiled. Peter refers to that event when he states (2 Pet. 1:16), “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”
What we have … “touched with our hands.” This is the same word that Jesus used after His resurrection, when He appeared to the disciples. He said (Luke 24:39), “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (see also, John 20:27).
So John is saying that Jesus Christ was revealed and that He was historically validated by the apostles in all of these objective ways, both before and after the resurrection. But, also, …
John states (1:1) that he is writing “concerning the Word of Life,” and then adds (1:2), “and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us.” In verse 1, the emphasis is on the humanity of Jesus Christ as He came in the flesh. In verse 2, John’s focus shifts to Jesus Christ as the one who both embodies and imparts eternal life. By stating that this Eternal Life (it should be capitalized) was “with the Father,” he uses the same preposition as in John 1:1, “the Word was with God.” But there the focus is on Jesus as the Word. Here the emphasis is on Jesus as the Life. This has two important implications:
The false teachers emphasized secret knowledge. While proper knowledge is vital—you cannot believe the gospel without knowing certain facts—there is more. The gospel is about dead sinners being raised to new life. Nicodemus was a teacher of the Jews (he had knowledge), but before he met with Jesus, he did not understand that he needed new life through the new birth (John 3:1-16). The apostle Paul told the Ephesians that they were dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-3). Then he adds the wonderful words (2:4-5), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ….”
So the gospel is not just a matter of knowing and assenting to the facts about Jesus Christ, although it includes that. It’s also a matter of Christ raising you from spiritual death to life.
John states (1:2), “the life was manifested,” and then repeats that this eternal life “was manifested to us” (the apostles). In other words, the apostles not only had Jesus Christ revealed to them in an objective, historical way; but also, He was manifested to them in a spiritual way as “the life, the eternal one” (literal translation of the Greek). God opened their eyes to see that the man, Jesus, was not just a godly man or a great teacher. It was revealed to them that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16-17).
Why didn’t the multitudes that heard the same teaching and saw the same miracles as the apostles also see and believe in Christ as the life-giving Savior? Jesus explained (Luke 10:21) that the Father had hidden these things from the wise and revealed them to infants (see also, Matt. 13:10-17). Then (10:22) He added, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” In a similar vein, Paul explained (2 Cor. 4:4), “… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Unless God shines into our hearts to give sight (2 Cor. 4:6), we cannot and will not see the truth about who Jesus Christ really is. At its core, true Christianity is Jesus Christ revealed.
Our experience of Jesus Christ must be based on the biblical revelation of Him. It is both personal and corporate. The personal aspect is evident in the repetition of “we” and “our” in these verses. The apostles knew Christ individually, but also they shared together in the experience. And the experience was progressive, or growing. We can see this here in three ways (I need to be brief now, but I hope to come back to this next week):
This is the historical validation that we’ve already seen. Christianity is not a mystical experience or someone’s subjective ideas about God. Rather, it is an experience rooted in history. God sent His Son at a point in history, in fulfillment of promises that He had made in earlier history. Our experience must be biblically based.
This is the spiritual manifestation of Jesus Christ. At some point in discovering the historical facts, God opens a person’s eyes to see who Jesus truly is. He sees that Jesus is Life, eternal life (John 14:6). As John later states (1 John 5:20), “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”
“Fellowship” means, literally, to share in common. The fellowship that we share when we come to know Jesus Christ as our life is two-dimensional: it is with God and with one another. John begins on the human plane, stating that he is proclaiming these truths about Jesus Christ “so that you too may have fellowship with us” (the apostolic circle). Then he adds, “and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” John Stott (ibid., pp. 63-64) explains, “John does not here mention the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, which is a characteristic expression in the Pauline Epistles (2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1), no doubt because the false teachers against whom he is writing make him concentrate on the Son, whom their heresy dishonored, and the Father whom they thereby forfeited.”
I’ll say more about this fellowship next time, but for now let me say that true Christianity is an experience rooted in revelation and realized in relationship—with God and with other believers. This two-dimensional fellowship should always be deepening in both directions. If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you should know and enjoy fellowship with God better than before. And, you should be deepening your relationships with God’s people. This is to say that unless you are in solitary confinement, you cannot be a growing Christian in isolation from other Christians. True Christianity is an experience of fellowship with God and with His people.
The Gnostics claimed that the truth about Christ was a deep mystery or secret, known only by the few. They were deliberately exclusive. But John counters their error by showing that true Christianity is not exclusive and hidden. Rather, it is a message that by its very nature must be proclaimed. He uses three words to describe how the apostles communicated the gospel:
“Testify” is a legal term meaning, “to bear witness.” When you testify in court, you swear to tell the truth about what you saw or heard. John Stott (p. 61) calls this “the authority of experience.” The apostles spoke the truth about what they had seen and heard during their time with Jesus.
This word means to report or announce as a messenger. Stott calls it “the authority of commission,” in that it implies that Jesus Christ appointed the apostles to proclaim the good news about His life, teaching, death, and resurrection. They did not launch the church because they were a bunch of religious entrepreneurs or franchisers, promoting their business. They were under orders from Jesus Christ and they weren’t free to change the message to fit the customers. They had to proclaim the message that the King had commanded them. That message hasn’t changed!
John (and some of the other apostles) wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the words that God wanted us to receive. Through these writings (our New Testament), we can enter into the same fellowship with God that the apostles enjoyed!
If John and the other apostles had not proclaimed the message, we wouldn’t know Christ today. The Great Commission that Jesus gave to them applies to us, also. If we don’t proclaim to others the authoritative message of the King, how will they know and believe (see Rom. 10:14-15)? God’s method of imparting eternal life to those who are dead in their sins is through the proclamation of the word of life, the gospel. If you’re not proclaiming God’s revelation about Jesus Christ by your life and words, you’re not experiencing the fullness of true Christianity. One final note:
John says that he writes these things “so that our joy may be made complete.” Some later manuscripts change “our” to “your,” and certainly that is true. But the original reading was probably “our” joy, referring to the joy of the apostolic circle that knew Christ firsthand. John was by this point the only surviving apostle. But, how was his joy made complete in writing these things? In the sense of 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (see also, 2 John 4). If John’s little children would read these letters and not be carried away by the false teachers, but continue in the truth, he was a happy man.
You may think that joy in the Lord is a nice extra, but not essential. But as John Piper often points out, we cannot glorify God properly unless we enjoy Him thoroughly. A. W. Pink (ibid., p. 28) observed, “Now this joy is not to be regarded as a luxury, but rather as a spiritual necessity. We are obligated to be glad in God.” He goes on to cite several Scriptures that command us to be glad and rejoice in the Lord. Then he points out that we will not glorify God apart from such genuine joy in Him. Our aim in proclaiming the gospel to others should be that they, too, would come to share our joy in Jesus Christ.
James Boice sums up (The Epistles of John [Zondervan], p. 30),
This then is the way in which the gospel has come to us and must be passed on. The apostles bore witness to what they had seen and heard of Jesus, proclaimed it authoritatively on His commission, and finally preserved it in the writings which have since become our New Testament. Today believers are to take their writings and, having through them entered into the experience of the apostles, proclaim the Christ of the apostles to the world.
Many people believe in a Jesus of their own imagination and have an emotional experience that they call being born again. But when their problems are not all magically solved, or they go through difficult trials, they conclude that “Jesus didn’t work,” and they go back to the world. The problem is, they didn’t believe in the Jesus revealed by the apostles in the New Testament. Their experience was not that of true fellowship with God and with others who know God. And so any witness about their supposed conversion is lost when they abandon the faith. It’s likely that they never experienced true Christianity.
True Christianity is essentially Jesus Christ—revealed in Scripture, experienced in new life and fellowship, and proclaimed with joy. Make sure that you’ve got the real deal!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
Imagine that you have come on hard times. You’re homeless, penniless, and sleeping on the sidewalk. Your tattered clothes and an old, dirty blanket are barely enough to keep you from freezing at night. Your meals consist of whatever you can find in the dumpsters. You have lost contact with all family and friends.
As you sit on the sidewalk, suddenly the presidential limousine pulls up to the curb. The President gets out and invites you to join him. You get in and are whisked to the airport, where Air Force One is waiting. You fly to Washington, are driven in the presidential motorcade to the White House, where your own room is ready. There are new, clean clothes, all the food you can eat, and servants to meet your every need or whim. But, more than that, to your astonishment, the President treats you as his friend. He shares his heart with you and wants you to share your heart with him.
At first, you’re so dazzled with this incredible change of events that you’re only aware of the President himself. But after a while, you realize that you’re not there alone. There are many others who have experienced the same thing. You suddenly have a large family of brothers and sisters that care for you. As you exchange your stories and talk of how the President has helped each of you, your relationships deepen.
This is an unbelievable fable, right? No, if you’ve come to know Jesus Christ, it’s a true allegory. He found you in the gutter and brought you to His heavenly palace to live with Him and to get to know Him as a friend. You discover brothers and sisters all over the world who have had the same experience. You’re accepted in a huge, loving family where every member has a variation of the same story: “I was lost in sin when Jesus found me and rescued me.” All of the family spends its time enjoying the bounty of the King, and best of all, getting to know Him better and better.
That is the glorious theme that John presents in our text—the joy of fellowship with God and with one another. The greatest joys in life come from loving relationships. We all want such relationships. A credit card ad pictures a family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, with the word, “Priceless!” It’s true!
And yet as we all know, relationships may also be the source of much grief and pain. We’ve all experienced disappointing relationships. Some of you had abusive parents who did not love you. You may have had—or still have—an abusive mate. Perhaps your children have gone astray and are a source of heartache. At the root of all such disappointments is sin, which causes alienation from God and from one another. But in spite of the reality of such painful relationships, we all still know that true joy does not consist in the accumulation of wealth or fame. True joy consists in the experience of true fellowship.
Picture a man on his deathbed, all alone, except for the nurse. He says, “Bring me today’s Wall Street Journal so that I can see how my investments are doing. Get me a phone so that I can call my attorney to see how my lawsuit is going.” There is a poor man! Picture another man on his deathbed, who doesn’t own much. But he’s surrounded by caring family members, who are telling him how much they love him. He is a man who knows God and knows that soon the Savior who loved him and died for him will welcome him into heaven. There is a rich man! He is a man who enjoys fellowship with God and with others. John is telling us that…
True fellowship with one another and with God is the basis for true joy.
“Fellowship” means sharing in common, or sharing together. The idea that we, who were so defiled by sin, could have fellowship—could share together—with the holy God, not just for the few years on this earth, but forever, should overwhelm us! John Calvin captures this (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 1 John 1:4, p. 162):
True is that saying, “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” (Matt. 6:21.) Whosoever, then, really perceives what fellowship with God is, will be satisfied with it alone, and will no more burn with desires for other things. “The Lord is my cup,” says David, “and my heritage; the lines have fallen for me on an excellent lot.” (Ps. 16:5, 6.) In the same manner does Paul declare that all things were deemed by him as dung, in comparison with Christ alone. (Phil. 3:8.) He, therefore, has at length made a proficiency in the Gospel, who esteems himself happy in having communion with God, and acquiesces in that alone; and thus he prefers it to the whole world, so that he is ready for its sake to relinquish all other things.
John begins with fellowship with one another:
Why does John begin with our fellowship with one another before he proceeds to fellowship with God? I would have thought that first he would lay the foundation, then show the effect. My guess is that he begins with where most people begin. The thought of fellowship with the holy God is a bit more than we can fathom. But we do feel the love of others in the church, perhaps even before we come to know God personally. This is especially true of those who have suffered broken relationships all their lives. They meet a Christian or come to church, and they feel love and acceptance. It’s the first thing that they notice. It’s such a new experience that they are overwhelmed. Then they learn that the source of this love is not in the people, but in the fact that these people have come to know the love of God in Christ.
Note three things about this fellowship with one another:
Although unbelievers who come in among us should be able to sense the love, they cannot know true fellowship with other believers until they personally come to faith in Jesus Christ and begin to walk with Him on a daily basis. In other words, knowing Christ personally and growing in that relationship is the basis for any true fellowship with others that know Christ. It is Christ Himself that we share in common. True Christian fellowship is when we share together about the riches of Christ and the treasures of His Word. Anything less is not genuine fellowship.
Sometimes we chat with one another about the weather, sports, or the news. While there’s nothing wrong with talking about such things, that isn’t true fellowship. J. Vernon McGee once spoke at a Rotary Club meeting, where a banner read, “Food, Fun, Fellowship.” He said that the food was nothing to brag about—embalmed chicken and peas. The fun was a few corny jokes. The fellowship consisted of one man patting the other on the back and saying, “Hi, Bill, how’s business?” Or, “how’s the wife?” That was their idea of fellowship (First John [Thomas Nelson], p. 21).
McGee goes on to say that what is called “Christian” fellowship often isn’t much different. We get together for a potluck supper and talk about everything under the sun, except that which would provide true fellowship, namely, all that we share together in Christ. True Christian fellowship centers on fellowship with God.
John did not advocate “fellowship” with the heretics. These men, no doubt, still claimed to believe in Jesus, but just not in the same way that the apostles understood things. Even though John emphasizes love, he never encourages love and fellowship with these heretics. Quite the opposite, he makes it clear that we should not welcome them even with a warm greeting. To do so would be to participate in their evil deeds (2 John 10-11).
There is a lot of sloppy thinking in Christian circles about the subject of unity in Christ. Clearly, it is an important topic. Jesus prayed that His followers would be one, so that the world would know that the Father sent Him (John 17:23). Those trying to promote unity often say, “The world will know that we follow Jesus by our love, not by our doctrine.” So they say, “Let’s come together in areas where we agree, and set aside the matters where we disagree.” Such thinking leads men like Charles Colson and Max Lucado to urge Protestants to accept Roman Catholics as brothers in Christ.
I dare to say that John would be aghast! True Christian unity must be based on true fellowship with God, which must be based on faith in the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. I know that there are some Roman Catholics who believe the true gospel, but they believe it in spite of what their church teaches, not because of it. The official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church denies that we are saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. (See The Councils of Trent, Session 6, Canons 9, 12, 24, 30, cited in my sermon, “Justification by Faith Alone” [8/11/96].) They are committing the Galatian heresy, which added our works to faith in what Christ did on the cross. Paul bluntly says, “Let them be accursed” (see Gal. 1:8, 9).
In Ephesians 4, Paul mentions two kinds of unity. He says (4:3) that we should be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The unity of the Spirit already exists; it must be preserved. But he goes on to say (4:12) that the pastor-teachers are to equip the saints, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” (4:13). The unity of the faith does not yet exist. We attain to it as we grow to know Jesus Christ better through the study and teaching of the Word.
When you know Christ, you experience genuine unity and fellowship with other Christians, even though there may be significant differences in background, personality, social status, or race. Among the apostles, Simon the Zealot was from a radical political group whose hobby was killing tax collectors. Matthew was a tax collector! Jesus brought them together and said, “Love one another!” Paul emphasizes that in the church, there are no distinctions between slaves and freemen, or Jews and Gentiles, but “Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
So true Christian unity at the basic level consists in mutually knowing Christ through the gospel (Eph. 4:3). Such unity deepens as we grow to know Him better through His Word (Eph. 4:13).
John was not advocating joining with the heretics in a crusade to win Ephesus for Christ! Far from it! We should not join together in evangelistic efforts with churches or organizations that blur the gospel. Paul commended the Philippians for their “participation [Greek = koinonea, “fellowship”] in the gospel” with him (Phil. 1:6). A few verses later, he exhorts them (1:27), “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind [lit., “soul”] striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
If you want to experience true fellowship with other believers, join together in laboring for the gospel. Yes, there is increased potential for disagreements and conflict. Paul and Barnabas split up over their differences in how to go about their mission. But, there is also the potential for deeper fellowship. Just as soldiers who fought together and survived later feel a close bond, so those who labor together for Christ will know true fellowship.
John says (1:3), “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” As we saw in the introductory study, one of John’s main themes in all three epistles is, believing in the truth about Jesus Christ (see 2 John 1-4, where he uses “truth” five times, and 3 John 1-4, where he uses “truth” four times). This has three important implications:
Often those who try to promote Christian unity will say, “Doctrine divides. We should set aside our doctrines and just love one another.” John would say, “Nonsense!” Sound doctrine unites, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:13. True fellowship centers on the truth of the apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ. If we depart from that, we have left the biblical foundation for unity.
This is why we cannot have true fellowship with liberals, who deny the deity of Jesus Christ. What do we share in common? Nothing! They supposedly believe in Jesus or His moral teachings. But the Jesus they believe in is not the Jesus of the apostles. This is also why a believer should not marry an unbeliever. Although in the context, Paul includes much more than marriage, it is certainly included when he writes (2 Cor. 6:14), “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” He goes on to ask (6:15), “or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” If you don’t share the truth about Christ together, you do not have the basis for true Christian fellowship.
In the next section, John presents us with a serious dilemma. God is absolutely holy (1:5), but we are not. How can sinners have fellowship with such a holy God? John’s answer, in line with the whole Bible, is that the only way a sinner can draw near to the holy God is if his sin is atoned for. The only thing that can atone for our sin is the blood of God’s perfect Son, Jesus Christ. If someone claims to know God, but denies the need for the blood of Jesus Christ to atone for sin, in John’s language, he is a liar and deceiver. He does not know God and there is no basis for true fellowship.
As we saw last week, John relays to us the message about “the Word of Life” (1:1), “the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1:2). This means that fellowship with God and with one another is not just a matter of subscribing to correct doctrines about Jesus. It is a matter of receiving new life through the new birth. This new life leads to a growing, deepening fellowship with God and with His people.
Picture a new baby, born into a family. Life is not peripheral to his entering into fellowship with that family! It’s absolutely essential! Without new life, there cannot be any fellowship. But when there is new life, that child will grow and begin to communicate with his parents and with his brothers and sisters. It’s always such a joy as parents when your children begin to talk with you! As the child grows, he comes to understand more of how much his parents love and care for him. Even though I knew that my parents loved me, I didn’t know how much they loved me until I had my own children.
If you have experienced new life in Christ, then the Father lovingly cares for every aspect of your life. He has given you all that you need for life and godliness through the promises of His Word (2 Pet. 1:3-4). He encourages you to cast all your cares on Him, knowing that He cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7). He sympathizes with your weaknesses and invites you to come to His throne of grace to receive mercy and grace to help in your times of need (Heb. 4:14-16). So you can share every burden, every struggle, and every thought openly with Him and know that He welcomes you!
Such fellowship with God through Christ is not automatic or effortless. Relationships take time and effort. There is no such thing as a good marriage that just happens spontaneously. If you see a good marriage, it’s because the couple makes it a priority to spend time together and to work at being close. They are committed to work through any difficulties or hurt feelings. They work hard at communication and they avoid temptations that would create distance or divide them.
Fellowship with God is no different. You’ve got to work at it, make time for it, and turn away from things that would create distance between you and God. Of course, sin hinders fellowship, but so do other things. The enemy will try to get you to anything except spend time alone with God. It may be TV, the newspaper, work, hobbies, or time with your friends. But if you allow these things to crowd out consistent time in God’s Word and in prayer, you will not grow close to God in genuine fellowship.
As you grow in fellowship with God, you will find that increasingly, His purposes and desires become your purposes and desires. If His purpose is to be glorified by saving some from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Rev. 5:9), then you will find great joy when you hear news of the gospel advancing around the world. If you don’t care about missions and you yawn when you hear of someone coming to Christ, but you hear of the score of a sports event and come alive with excitement, you may want to examine whether you enjoy true fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. This leads to John’s final point:
As we saw last time, the original text (1:4) probably read “our joy,” not “your joy.” But both are true. When a sinner comes to Christ, it brings great joy to those who already know Christ, but it also brings great joy to the sinner who is saved. And as our fellowship with God and with one another deepens, the joy deepens. In commenting on the fact that God has given us eternal life, Calvin exclaims (ibid., p. 157), “But if we consider how miserable and horrible a condition death is, and also what is the kingdom and the glory of immortality, we shall perceive that there is something here more magnificent than what can be expressed in any words.”
And so as God’s children we are obligated to seek our greatest joy in Him. If we seek joy in lesser things, we miss the greatest joy of all and we do not glorify the God who rescued us from the ravages of sin and death.
Fellowship with God and with one another really are just the two Great Commandments, to love God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matt. 22:37-40). The aim of the entire Bible is to help us glorify God as we experience the deep joy of a close relationship with Him and close relationships with one another. As grow in obedience to these two Great Commandments, we will grow in great joy, not only in this life, but also for all eternity!
I encourage you, work on your relationship with God. Don’t settle for occasional, distant fellowship. Make time daily to spend with Him in His Word and in prayer. Read books that help you to know Him better. Cut out of your life anything that hinders fellowship with Him.
And, work at your relationships with other believers. In this sinful world, such relationships will never be perfect, but they can be good. But they won’t be good without effort! The payoff is that true fellowship with one another and true fellowship with God will bring you true joy.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
For many years, polls have shown that about one-third of Americans claim to be born again. So-called “seeker” churches are thriving, with thousands flocking into their huge auditoriums each week. You would think from the numbers that Christianity is alive and well in the United States.
But in his booklet, The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church [Banner of Truth], David Wells reports that in 1993, pollsters added a few questions to, “Are you born again?” They also asked, “Do you go to church with some regularity, do you pray with some regularity, and do you have some minimal structure of formal Christian belief?” The number claiming to be born again dropped from 32 percent to 8 percent. Wells goes on to speculate, based on research, that if you added a few more basic questions (such as, “Are you regenerate?”) the numbers would drop to one or two percent. (I highly recommend Wells’ books, No Place for Truth; God in the Wasteland; and, Losing Our Virtue [all Eerdmans].)
The apostle John opens his letter by asserting that one of the main aims of the Christian message is we may enter in to the apostolic fellowship, which is “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). Such fellowship with God is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Christianity is not, at its core, the observance of rituals or rules. Rather, it is a walk of personal fellowship with the living God.
But before we all sign up for the program, John makes it clear that fellowship with God is not a matter of being chummy with your good buddy in the sky! He asserts that God is absolutely holy (1:5). To have genuine fellowship with the holy God, we must walk in the light, as He Himself is in the light. It’s easy to claim to have fellowship with Him, but to be mistaken or deceived. The false teachers were claiming to have fellowship with God, but their claims were patently false. There was in John’s day, as there is today, the peril of profession, the danger of claiming to know God, but of being deceived. John’s message is:
To have fellowship with the holy God, we must not walk in the darkness, but walk in the light.
John begins with the apostolic message, that God is light (1:5). Then he develops the implications of that message as it relates to having fellowship with this holy God (1:6-2:2). He does this against the claims and consequences of the errors of the false teachers (“If we say…”
John writes (1:5), “This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” Note two things:
John is not sharing with us his speculations on what God may be like. He doesn’t throw out an idea and suggest that his readers discuss what they think about it. Rather, John says, “We heard this straight from Jesus and we announce it to you.” It wasn’t a discussion point; it was an authoritative pronouncement from Jesus through the apostles to the readers. To have fellowship with God, we must start with His authoritative revelation in His Word.
Note, also, that John does not begin with his hearers felt needs. He doesn’t discuss where they may be hurting, or bring up how this message will help them have a happy family life or a successful personal life. Rather, John begins with God and he brings us face to face, not with God’s love, but with His holiness. Coming after verse 3, about having fellowship with God, you would expect John to say, “To have fellowship with God, you need to know that He loves you very much.” But, rather, he bluntly says, “God is light.” Then, so that we don’t dodge the uncomfortable implications of that, he states the negative, “and in Him there is no darkness at all.”
Martyn Lloyd-Jones makes this point (Fellowship With God [Crossway Books], p. 100), that we must always start with God. He argues that our main problem is our self-centeredness, and so we come to the Christian faith looking to have our needs met. I’m not happy; can God make me happy? I’m looking for something that I don’t have; can God give it to me? How can Christianity help me with my problems and needs? But to approach the Christian faith in that manner is to cater to our main problem, which is self! He says (p. 101), “The first answer of the gospel can always, in effect, be put in this way: ‘Forget yourself and contemplate God.’” He adds (p. 102), “The way to be delivered from self-centeredness is to stand in the presence of God.”
The entire church growth movement, including one of its most famous leaders, blatantly contradicts this. Robert Schuller, in his heretical book, Self-Esteem: The New Reformation ([Word], p. 64), argues that classical theology “erred in its insistence that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’” So he calls for a new Reformation that puts man, not God, at the center!
Following his lead, other church growth leaders have started with the “religious consumer.” They have gone to people with the question, “What would you like in a church? What would get you to come back and try the church again?”
People have responded, “We’d like a church that is a happy, upbeat place. We don’t want to hear about sin or a holy God who threatens sinners with His wrath. We want help on how to have happy families, how to be successful in reaching our full potential, and how to recover from divorce, drug addiction, and sexual addictions. We don’t want sermons that make us uncomfortable. Give us more drama and less preaching. In fact, don’t preach at us; share with us. Tell more stories and jokes. Don’t bring up controversial issues. Make it positive.” So, the church marketers go back to the drawing board and re-design the church to meet the felt needs of the consumer. The result is amazing growth. But, have people come face to face with the living God?
John says, first, to have fellowship with God, we must begin with God and His authoritative revelation of Himself, not with ourselves.
The church marketers would say, “‘God is holy’ won’t sell. That’s just not popular. If you want to draw the crowds, begin with, ‘God is love.’ Everyone wants to hear that!”
But John begins with, “God is light.” In Scripture, “light” may refer to God as the source of knowledge, illumination, or guidance. It may point to God’s glory and that He is unapproachable, infinite, unchangeable, and omnipresent. But here, the main idea is that He is holy. This is indicated by the negative explanation, “and in Him there is no darkness at all.” It is this moral connotation that Jesus brought out when He said (John 3:19), “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”
You may ask, “But why start with God’s holiness? Why not start with His love, which is more inviting?” Dr. Lloyd-Jones answers these questions (pp. 108-109). I can only summarize his main points. First, if you don’t begin with God’s holiness, you will never understand God’s plan of salvation through the cross of Christ. If God is only love, then the cross is unnecessary and meaningless. Second, if we start with God’s holiness, it exposes all false claims of fellowship with God. In our day, as in John’s, many claim to have fellowship with God, but often this is an empty claim based on their own imagination with a false god that they have made up. True fellowship is with the holy God, not with a good buddy god.
Third, starting with God’s holiness saves us from the danger of blaming God in times of trouble. We’re all prone to ask, “Why is God allowing this? I didn’t deserve this!” But if we start with God’s absolute holiness, we will see that we deserve nothing but His wrath, and we won’t challenge and criticize God when trials come.
Lastly, Lloyd-Jones points out that starting with God’s holiness is the only way to true joy. It’s easy to have a false peace if you have a “user-friendly” god. If you bring God down to man’s level, then you can enjoy peace with God without dealing with your sins. But, it’s a false peace that will not hold up in the day of judgment. True peace and joy come from being truly reconciled to the holy God through the blood of His Son Jesus (1:7). So, John begins with God. He says that to have fellowship with God, we must recognize that He is absolutely holy.
To understand this paragraph, we must see that John is writing against the false claims of the false teachers. Their claims are introduced by the phrase, “if we say…” (1:6, 8, 10). John here shifts the “we” from the apostles to a hypothetical group that may include anyone, but especially targets the false teachers. Their first claim was, “We have fellowship with God” (1:6), but John says that their lives did not back up their claim. They walked in darkness, they lied, and they did not practice the truth.
“To walk” points to the general tenor of one’s life. Since to walk in the light involves confessing our sins (1:9), to walk in the darkness means ignoring or denying our sins. It is to block out the light of God’s holiness, as revealed in His Word, and to live as the world lives, making up your own ideas about right and wrong apart from God (see Eph. 4:17-19; 5:7-12). It is to justify your own behavior either by redefining sin, by blaming it on other factors, or by doing away with the entire concept of sin. To walk in darkness is to try to hide from God, rather than to expose your life to Him.
Apparently these false teachers were doing this, because John’s next hypothetical statement is (1:8), “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” They may have been claiming that they had achieved a state of sinless perfection. Or, perhaps because they believed that the body could not touch the spirit, they were claiming not to have a sin nature. They said, “You’re just seeing my body. My spirit is without sin.” John says, “You’re only deceiving yourselves!”
The heretic’s third claim was (1:10), “We have not sinned.” This is the most blatant of the three, as seen by John’s consequence, “we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” It goes farther than the other claims by saying, “We have not sinned in the past and we are not now sinning.” Perhaps they were claiming that their enlightenment had led them to see that they were basically good at the core, not evil sinners.
Robert Schuller redefines sin to mean something other than what Scripture declares. He says (p. 65) that to define sin as rebellion against God is “shallow and insulting to the human being.” He redefines sin as a lack of trust, which “is another way of saying that we are all born with a negative self-image….” He says (p. 67), “By nature, we are fearful, not bad. Original sin is not a mean streak; it is a nontrusting inclination.” So he redefines being born again (p. 68): “To be born again means that we must be changed from a negative to a positive self-image—from inferiority to self-esteem, from fear to love, from doubt to trust.” This, in turn, changes us from shame to self-esteem, so that we can now pray (p. 69, italics his), “Our Father in heaven, honorable is our name. So, the foundation is laid for us to feel good about ourselves!”
John would say, “That man is walking in the darkness, deceiving himself and anyone who believes him. Worse, he is calling God a liar and God’s word is not in him!”
But we need to apply this personally. If as a way of life, I am not allowing God’s Word to confront my sinful thoughts, attitudes, motives, words, and deeds, I am walking in darkness. If I dodge my sin by blaming others or making up excuses for why I sin, I am walking in darkness. And for John, to walk in darkness is not describing a “carnal” Christian. It is describing an unbeliever, no matter how much he may claim to have fellowship with God. To have fellowship with God, we must recognize that He is absolutely holy. And, we must not walk in the darkness.
(First John 2:1-2 also describes what it means to walk in the light, but we will examine those verses next time.) Walking in the light is not a description of a class of spiritual believers, who have achieved perfection or some high state of sanctification. Rather, it describes all true believers. Believers walk in the light; unbelievers walk in the darkness. There are three aspects of walking in the light:
To walk in the light is to walk “as He Himself is in the Light” (1:7). This is to say the same thing as 2:6, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” Or, in the words of 1 Peter 1:15-16, “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” Or, in Jesus’ words of John 3:21, “But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” This is in contrast with the evil person who loves darkness and hates the Light, who “does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:20).
This does not imply that the person walking in the light never sins. 1 John 1:7 indicates that the blood of Jesus is cleansing (present tense) from all sin the one who is walking in the light. So to walk in the light does not mean to be sinless, which no one can do. Rather, it points to a habitual pattern of living openly before God, who examines the heart. To walk in the light is to seek to be holy as God is holy. But, what about when we sin?
A person walking in the light does not deny his sin or try to cover it up. He does not blame others for it or make excuses about it. Rather, he confesses it (1:9): “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To confess means to agree with God that our sin is sin. It means to accept responsibility for it and to turn from it. God’s wonderful promise is that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive and cleanse us.
Forgiveness and cleansing are somewhat overlapping, except that forgiveness relates to the guilt of sin being pardoned, whereas cleansing points to the defilement of sin being removed. The forgiven person does not need to fear God’s judgment. The cleansed person is free to draw near to God in worship, because the defilement of sin has been taken away.
But this verse creates a difficulty, in that other Scriptures teach that we are forgiven totally at the point of salvation, including all future sins. For example, Romans 8:1 states, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why, then, do we need to be forgiven again when we sin after salvation?
Some explain this as “family” forgiveness that is necessary for fellowship, not forensic forgiveness that is required to deliver us from God’s judgment. While that explanation may be okay, to me it does not take into account the terms “faithful and righteous to forgive….” God’s faithfulness relates to His new covenant promise to forgive all our sins through faith in Christ, which happens at salvation (Heb. 8:12). His righteousness (or, justice) relates to His strict demand that the penalty for sin be paid. In the case of the believer, Jesus Christ paid this at the cross.
So I prefer to explain verse 9 differently. In verse 9, “confess” is in the present tense, but “forgive” and “cleanse” are the Greek aorist tense, focusing on an action as a totality or as complete. So confession points to an ongoing action, but the forgiveness and cleansing are completed actions in the past.
Let me use an analogy. John uses the word “believe” in the present tense to refer to the means of how we get saved (John 1:12; 3:16; et al.). When a person first believes, he receives all the benefits of salvation. Does he stop believing then? No, he goes on believing in what Jesus did for him on the cross. As he continues believing, he does not receive the benefits of salvation over and over, but he does experience them repeatedly. So the Christian is characterized by a lifestyle of believing in Christ. As he goes on believing, he repeatedly enjoys the benefits that he received at salvation.
In a similar way, the believer’s life is marked by continual confession of sins. It begins at salvation, when he acknowledges his sin to God and asks for forgiveness and cleansing. He experiences ongoing forgiveness and cleansing as he continues confessing his sins. Verse 7 (“cleanses” is in the present tense) indicates that there is an ongoing sense in which the effects of the cleansing of Jesus’ blood are applied to us. Thus when a believer sins, he does not lose the forgiveness and cleansing that took place at salvation. But he does not experience it in his walk until he confesses his sin. Ongoing confession of sin and the experience of forgiveness and cleansing characterize those who walk in the light.
Does the reference to “one another” (1:7) refer to fellowship between God and the believer or between believers? In the immediate context, verse 6 refers to fellowship with God, and thus verse 7 would seem to point in that direction. But verse 3 also referred to fellowship with other believers. So I think that in 1:7 John’s primary emphasis is on fellowship with God. But fellowship with God and fellowship with other believers is always linked, as verse 3 makes clear. Since the heretics had withdrawn from the church (2:19), John wants us to know that true fellowship with God always brings us into fellowship with others that know Him. If someone can’t get along with other believers, he may not be in true fellowship with God.
In the 18th century, an abbot was disciplining two monks for some infraction of the rules. He imposed on them the rule of silence. They could not talk to one another. They tried to figure out some way to fill the long hours.
Finally one of them gathered 28 flat stones from the courtyard. Putting different numbers on them, he devised a new game. By using gestures, the men agreed on certain rules, but the most difficult part was keeping silent when one of them scored a victory. Then they remembered that they were permitted to say aloud the prayer, “Dixit Dominus Domino Meo.” By using the one word of this Latin expression meaning “Lord,” the winner was able to signal his triumph by yelling, “Domino!” The monks gave the impression that they were praying, but really, they were playing. Thus the game of dominoes was born (From “Our Daily Bread” [8/77]).
It’s easy to put on a religious veneer by claiming that you have fellowship with God, when really, you’re walking in the darkness and deceiving yourself. John doesn’t want us to play spiritual dominoes. He wants us to experience genuine fellowship with the holy God by walking in the light, as He Himself is in the light.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Every time I see the bumper sticker, “Christians are forgiven, not perfect;” I want to add another line, “But, they’re striving for holiness.” As it stands, the bumper sticker seems to say, “God accepts me, faults and all, so you need to accept me, too!” Okay, but please give me some assurance that you’re working on things! As the author of Hebrews states (12:14, ESV), we are to “strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
Holiness is not an optional accessory that you may add to your Christian life at some point, if you so choose. Holiness is essential. If you are not striving to grow in holiness in the sight of God, you need to examine whether you know Christ as Savior at all. Every blood-bought child of God desires to please the Lord Jesus who gave Himself on the cross to save us from our sins.
Since holiness is such an important matter, it’s not surprising that the enemy of our souls has infiltrated the church with confusion about how to attain it. One of his lies is that legalism leads to holiness. The legalist tries to be holy by keeping certain manmade rules: “Do this, don’t do that, and you will please God.” The legalist does not deal with matters of the heart, but rather with outward performance. He thinks that his relationship with God is just fine when he keeps the rules, even if his heart is far from God. Jesus hit the Pharisees with this problem when he said (Mark 7:6-8):
“Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”
Concerning the rules of the legalists, Paul commented (Col. 2:23), “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Legalism does not produce true holiness.
Another tactic that Satan uses, often with a person who has been under legalism, is to whisper, “You’re too conscientious! You have been too concerned about keeping the rules and about all of your failures. But God is a God of grace. He forgets your sins, so you should forget them, too! Everyone sins; you’re just normal. Accept yourself, faults and all. Stop worrying so much about your sins.” And so the person swings from legalism into licentiousness.
Legalism and licentiousness are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both are a fleshly approach to the sin problem. And, both are opposed to the true grace of God, which is the key to holiness (see Rom. 6:14).
John is combating the erroneous teaching and practice of some heretics. They said, “We have fellowship with God,” but John says that they are walking in the darkness, lying, and not practicing the truth (1:6). Those who experience true fellowship with God walk in the light, as He Himself is in the light (1:7). The heretics were saying that they had no sin and that they had not sinned. John says that they are deceiving themselves and making God to be a liar (1:8, 10).
But John does not want his readers to conclude that Christians are characterized by sin. So before he says, “If anyone sins…” he clarifies his purpose (2:1), “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” “These things” refers to the message that God is holy (1:5) and to the importance of walking in the light, not in the darkness (1:6-10). It also refers to what he writes in 2:1-2. By calling them, “my little children,” John reflects both his pastoral heart for them and his longer experience as an old man. He cares for them as a father or grandfather does for his little ones. He has lived longer than they have and speaks with experience about how to live a holy life. So we should pay close attention to his message:
The key to holiness is to understand God’s grace as seen in Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.
Legalists always pounce on God’s grace with the warning that it will lead to licentiousness. When Paul taught God’s grace, he anticipated that response (Rom. 6:1), “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” His immediate answer was (Rom. 6:2a), “May it never be!” (See, also, Rom. 3:8.) This means that if we teach God’s grace with biblical clarity and balance, the thought of continuing in sin that grace may abound will pop into people’s minds. If we hedge God’s grace so carefully that that thought would never occur to anyone, we have not taught God’s grace properly.
John’s thought here (in line with Paul) is that you need to realize that God graciously has forgiven you completely in Jesus Christ. He is at the right hand of the Father, pleading your case, even when you sin. Your standing before God does not depend on your performance, but rather on Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Properly understanding that truth will not lead you to sin more, but rather, to sin less. The key to holiness is to understand God’s grace that was lavished upon you when Jesus Christ died for your sins. Let’s begin with trying to grasp what that means and then we will see how it leads to holy living.
John uses three terms to describe Christ’s sacrifice for our sins: (1) He is our Advocate with the Father; (2) He is Jesus Christ the righteous; and, (3) He is the propitiation for our sins. Then John adds (2:2), “and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”
“Advocate” is from the Greek word that is transliterated, “Paraclete.” It is used of Jesus Christ only in our text. Jesus uses it of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). It refers to one who is called alongside to help, especially in a court of law. If you have been accused of a crime, you need an attorney to come to your aid by pleading your case before the bench. The Holy Spirit comes to believers in Christ’s stead to testify of Him and lead us into all truth. He assures us that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16).
But here John says that Jesus is our Advocate in heaven, “with the Father.” “With” is the same word used in John 1:1, “the Word was with God.” It means that Jesus is always before the Father. He never takes a vacation or a break. Whenever we need Him (which is always!), He is there, coming to our aid. When we sin, Satan, the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10; Zech. 3:1-5), charges us as guilty before God. Jesus Christ, our defense attorney, steps to the bench, but He does not enter a plea of “not guilty.” That would not be true. We have sinned. Rather, He enters a plea of guilty, but then He argues for pardon because He paid the penalty for that sin by His substitutionary death. Therefore, His client is not liable for punishment.
And, although we should confess our sins (1:9), John does not say, “If we confess our sins, we have an Advocate.” Rather, he says, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate.” Our forgiveness and our standing with God do not depend on anything we do, but rather on the finished work of Christ. If we are His children through the new birth, He is there before the Father on our behalf, pleading His blood, even before we confess our sins!
This is another way of stating the heavenly ministry of Christ’s intercession for us. Hebrews 7:25 says: “Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 1 John 2:1, p. 171) writes, “The intercession of Christ is a continual application of his death for our salvation.” Because Jesus Christ is perpetually in heaven presenting His shed blood, every person that draws near to God through Christ can know that the accuser has no grounds for conviction. We are guilty as charged, but the penalty has already been paid by our Substitute, who pleads our case for us!
Note also that John does not say that our Advocate pleads our case before the Judge, but rather, with the Father. God is not a hostile Judge who has to be won over grudgingly. Rather, He is the loving Father who sent His own Son to pay the penalty that we deserved! The Father did not compromise His own righteousness or justice in any way, because His sinless Son fully met the demands of His holy law. Thus, as Paul puts it (Rom. 3:26), God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” In other words, God’s grace does not mean that He tolerantly sets aside His own righteous demand that the penalty of sin be paid. Rather, His righteous demand was fully satisfied by the death of His Son. If we have trusted in Him, our sins are paid in full!
John calls Him “Jesus Christ the righteous.” Each name points to an essential part of our forgiveness. In the first place, we needed a human Savior, Jesus. Only man could atone for the sins of people. Jesus was completely human, not just in appearance, as some of the heretics maintained, but in His nature. But, we also needed a divine Savior. Jesus is the Christ, God’s anointed one, sent to bear our sins (Isaiah 53). A mere man’s death would only pay for his own sins. But as God in human flesh, Jesus’ death had infinite merit to atone for the sins of all that the Father had given to Him.
But, also, He is Jesus Christ the righteous. Jesus had to be “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Pet. 1:19). If He had sinned, He would have had to die for His own sins. But He fully kept God’s law, in dependence on the Father. His righteousness is freely imputed to the one who trusts in Him. As Paul wrote (2 Cor. 5:21), “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” This means that Jesus Christ alone is an adequate Savior. He is all that we need to stand before the holy God, not in a righteousness of our own, “derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil. 3:9). We can add nothing to what Christ has done.
The word that John uses (also in 4:10; a similar word is used in Rom. 3:25 & Heb. 2:17) was used in ancient pagan writings to refer to the appeasing of an angry god, usually by a sacrifice or offering. If you had done something to make one of the gods mad, you had to do something to placate him and get in his good graces.
Because of the negative connotations of this idea, some scholars argue that the word does not focus on God’s wrath, but rather on man’s sins. Thus they translate the word “expiation,” which means to blot out the guilt of our sins by making atonement. While we should reject any idea of God being angry in a capricious human sense, we cannot do away with the biblical concept of His wrath, which is His settled hatred of and opposition to all sin.
The difference between the pagan and the biblical concepts is that in the Bible, it is never man that takes the initiative to placate God. Rather, God took the initiative to satisfy His own wrath so that His love may now be shown to the guilty sinner. Rather than man piling up good works or sacrifices to placate God’s wrath, the Bible says that God did what all our good works or efforts could never do. He sent His own Son as the righteous substitute to bear His wrath on the cross. John Stott (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 88) aptly defines propitiation as “an appeasement of the wrath of God by the love of God through the gift of God.” All that we can do is trust Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. It is all of God’s grace.
It is precisely at this point that legalists object. They fear that if you say that all of our sins are remitted completely by God’s grace through Christ’s sacrifice, people will take advantage of that grace by sinning. So, they add human works to hedge in God’s grace, to protect it from licentiousness. This is the error of Roman Catholicism, and it is a main reason why we should not join together with the Catholic Church in any display of “Christian unity.”
Rome teaches that if anyone says that after he has sinned, he may recover right standing with God by faith alone, without the sacrament of penance, he is anathema (“The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” Session 6, canon 29, in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom [Baker], 2:116-117). John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 3:4:26 & 27) exposed and countered the false teaching of penance.
He wrote (3:4:27), “What a vast difference there is between saying … that Christ is the propitiation for our sins, and that God must be propitiated by works!” He pointed out that the Bible, rather than calling us to penance when we sin, “as often as we lapse we are recalled solely to the satisfaction of Christ.” He went on to argue that the Catholic teaching denies anyone the peace of conscience of knowing that he has adequately satisfied God.
John is teaching that we must understand God’s grace as seen in Christ’s sacrifice for our sins if we want to grow in holiness. But, he adds another phrase at the end of verse 2 to impress us with the magnitude of God’s grace:
John says (2:2b), “and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” I think that John intended to counter the heretics, who claimed that the knowledge of salvation was exclusive and secret. They restricted it to the enlightened few. Instead, John throws open the door to the entire world, as if to say, “God’s grace is far more extensive than you imagine! Christ’s sacrifice is not just for the enlightened few; it is not just for the Jews; it’s for the entire world!” Anyone, anywhere who trusts in Christ’s sacrifice for his sin will be saved.
But John’s little phrase has sparked a lot of theological controversy! Those who oppose the Reformed (Calvinist) view of salvation say that this verse refutes the doctrine of “limited atonement,” that Christ died only for the elect (the L of Calvinism’s TULIP, also called “particular redemption”).
Calvinists respond by pointing out that the verse cannot mean that Christ actually satisfied God’s wrath on behalf of every person, or else everyone would be saved. Scripture is clear that the wrath of God abides on those who do not obey Jesus (John 3:36). Thus they argue that the word whole means the world in general, not necessarily every individual. It refers to God’s elect from every nation, not to every person who has ever lived.
Revelation 5:9 states that Jesus purchased for God with His blood “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” It does not say that He purchased all people in every group, but some from every group. Jesus Himself specifically excluded the world from His priestly prayer, and prayed rather for those whom the Father had given Him (John 17:9).
Thus when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we must conclude that Christ’s death actually satisfied God’s wrath only for His elect. But because we do not know who the elect are until they believe, we are commanded to proclaim the free offer of the gospel to every person in every nation, knowing that it will save all that the Father gave to the Son. John’s point here is to emphasize the magnitude of God’s grace in Christ’s sacrifice. It extends to the whole world. The application of this is:
John steers a careful course that does not shipwreck on the rock of sinless perfection, nor on that of licentiousness.
John writes, “so that you may not sin.” While we will never attain sinless perfection in this life, we can and must live with consistent victory over sin. As John states (3:7-8a), “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; …” He adds (3:9), “No one who is born of God practices sin….” Christians can and must live holy lives.
John adds, “And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate ….” The “we” includes the apostle John. Although he was an old man who had walked with the Lord for many years, he knew that he was not beyond the possibility of sinning. While the general tenor of our lives should be growth in holiness, we will never in this life get to the point where we never sin. If someone claims to have achieved sinless perfection, just hang around him for a while and you will see that the “emperor” of sinless perfection is only deceiving himself (1:8). He really has no clothes!
This is John’s point here. If you understand what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross, you will not take advantage of it by sinning more. Rather, as you think about God’s amazing grace shown to you, who deserved His wrath and you think about His love that sent His Son to be the propitiation for your sins (1 John 4:7), it will make you hate sin and strive to live to please the Savior.
The apostle Peter urges us to add godly character qualities to our faith in Christ (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Then he adds (1:9), “For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.” Remembering what Christ did for you on the cross will motivate you to cut sin out of your life and grow in holiness.
As a teenager, Robert Robinson lived in London and ran with a gang of hoodlums, living in debauchery. When he was 17, he went to hear the famous evangelist, George Whitefield, to scoff at what he called “the poor, deluded Methodists.” But instead he got saved and subsequently became the pastor of a large Baptist church in Cambridge. At 23, he wrote the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Later, however, Robinson went through a time of severe depression because of his sin. He was traveling when he struck up a conversation with a young Christian woman. She realized that he was well informed on spiritual matters, so she asked him what he thought of a hymn she had just been reading. To his astonishment, he found it to be the very hymn that he had written in his younger days. He tried to evade her question, but she kept pressing him. Finally, he began to weep and said, “I’m the man who wrote that hymn many years ago. I’d do anything to experience again the joy I knew then.” The lady was surprised, but she assured him that the same “streams of mercy” mentioned in the song still flowed.
Robinson had written in the third verse, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” Robinson’s own hymn was used to turn his wandering heart back to the Lord. (Taken from “Our Daily Bread,” Summer, 1983, plus Kenneth Osbeck, Amazing Grace [Kregel], p. 343.)
That same grace of God flows freely to you, no matter how great your sins. Understanding God’s grace in Christ’s sacrifice is the key to holiness.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
Years ago, when I was candidating at my first church, we were staying in a house in a remote area of the Southern California mountains while the owners were away. We were having dinner at another home when we received a call informing us that an escaped convict had ditched his stolen car in the driveway of the house where we were staying and had set out on foot through the property. We decided to spend the night at the home where we had dinner.
The next morning, I called the sheriff to explain our situation and to ask if it was safe to take my pregnant wife back to the house. He assured me that it was perfectly safe. I said, “Fine, but I would like a sheriff to escort us into the house and to check some hiding places on the property, just to make sure.” When we arrived at the property, there were three or four cars of officers wearing their bulletproof vests, loading their shotguns!
We later learned that the convict had made his way to another road, hitchhiked, and killed the driver who picked him up. The sheriff was sure that it was safe for us to go back to that house unarmed, but he wasn’t really sure! When the safety of his men was on the line, he wanted to be really sure!
There are some things in life that you want to be really sure about, because so much rides on the outcome. Your salvation is such an issue. You don’t want to take risks about your eternal destiny. Since the Bible warns that many are deceived about this crucial matter, you especially need to know that you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.
Last week our text focused on God’s abundant grace in forgiving all of our sins. If we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. But there is always the danger that people will mistakenly “turn the grace of our God into licentiousness, and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). The true grace of God teaches us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). So after setting forth God’s grace, John goes on to show that those who have truly experienced it will show it by living in obedience to His Word. John gives this as the first test of how you can know that you know Jesus Christ:
You can know that you truly know Christ if you walk in obedience to His Word.
Our text teaches us, first, that…
Christianity is not just knowing about God or knowing certain doctrines or following certain moral precepts. It is essentially to know God. Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Christianity at its heart is, knowing God personally through Jesus Christ, who revealed God to us. If you do not know Him, you are not a Christian, no matter how correct your doctrine or how faithful your church attendance. You may have been raised in the church and you may always have adhered to Christian morality. But if you do not know God personally, you are not saved.
There is a vast difference between knowing about a person and knowing that person. I may know many things about President Bush, by reading the news or watching TV. But I do not know him personally. I’ve never met him or spent any time with him. In the same way, you may know a lot about God, but if you have not entered into a personal relationship with Him through faith in Jesus Christ, you do not know God personally.
The apostle Paul was a rabbinical student steeped in Judaism. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures. He fastidiously kept the Jewish rituals and feasts. As to the righteousness of the Law, he said that he was blameless. But he wrote (Phil. 3:8), “… I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” Paul knew a lot about God, but he didn’t know God personally until he came to faith in Jesus Christ.
Do you know God personally through Christ? That is foundational. You begin there.
John writes (2:3), “By this we know that we have come to know Him….” There is a difference between knowing and knowing that you know. It’s easy to claim that you know Him, but it’s also easy to be mistaken. John mentions (2:4) someone claiming, “I have come to know Him,” but John bluntly says that this person “is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Since we’re talking about eternal destiny, we don’t want to be deceived on this crucial matter!
Because this subject is so important, it’s not surprising that the enemy of our souls has created some major confusion about it in our day. There are many evangelicals (including the Greek professor under whom I first studied 1 John) who teach that if a person professes faith in Christ, he is saved eternally and should be assured of his salvation, even if his subsequent life demonstrates no fruit to back up his claim. They argue that if faith must be validated by any evidence, then it is not faith alone that saves.
The popular Four Spiritual Laws booklet also promotes the idea of giving immediate assurance of salvation to a person who prays to receive Christ. It uses 1 John 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” The logic goes, “You just prayed to receive Jesus, indicating that you believe in Him. Therefore, you should know that you have eternal life and that nothing can ever take it away from you.” But the booklet ignores that “these things” refers to all that John has written, which includes three tests of genuine faith: obedience, love, and sound doctrine.
That view of instant assurance based on a person’s profession of faith is foreign to what most of the godly men in church history have taught. I would argue that it is foreign to First John, Hebrews, James, and many other Scriptures. In the parable of the sower, those represented by the rocky soil that received the word with joy certainly would have claimed to believe. The same would be true of the thorny soil. But only the fourth type, the good soil, brought forth fruit with perseverance (Luke 8:5-15). That parable shows that if a person truly believes, he will endure trials and root out the weeds of the world. But it takes some time to determine this. How can we know if a recent profession of faith is genuine, saving faith? Look at the fruit that comes from it. But fruit takes time to grow.
In 2 Peter 1:10, the apostle exhorts us to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; …” Why would anyone need to be diligent to make certain about this, if assurance is something that accompanies initial faith? Peter indicates that making certain about our calling and election is somewhat tied to our deeds subsequent to initial faith. He adds (2 Pet. 1:10-11), “for as long as you practice these things [the qualities that he has just listed], you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”
So God wants us not only to know Him through faith in Jesus Christ, but also to know that we know Him. But as many Scriptures indicate, this assurance is linked to how we live subsequent to our profession of faith. John shows…
John uses three somewhat overlapping ideas here, but there seems to be a progression in them.
He writes (2:3), “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” John (2:4) then states the other side, exposing the false claims of the heretics, “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John doesn’t use diplomatic, nuanced language that leaves you thinking, “I wonder what he meant?” What part of liar don’t you understand?
We need to be careful, though, not to reverse the order of Scripture. We are not saved by keeping God’s commandments. We are saved by faith alone, but genuine saving faith necessarily results in a life of obedience to Jesus Christ. As John Calvin puts it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 1 John 2:3, p. 174), “The knowledge of God is efficacious.” He means that knowing God necessarily changes your heart and life.
Behind our text in John’s mind were Jesus’ words in the Upper Room. Jesus said (John 14:15), “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” He added (14:21), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” If we missed it, He repeats (14:23-24), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.” Just a few sentences later, Jesus emphasized (John 15:10), “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
We could spend several messages on these important words of Jesus, but note a few things. First, the fact that John, as an old man, is still reciting these words of Jesus that he had heard about sixty years before should teach us something! He couldn’t shake from his life the words of Jesus. Jesus’ teaching is not something to read and forget as you go your way. His teaching should burn into our very existence, so that it shapes how we think and how we live for the rest of our lives.
As Jesus stated, His words were not merely His words, but the words of the Father who sent Him. If you are not thoroughly familiar with Jesus’ teaching, it will not affect your life. You will not obey His words if you do not know them. Since Jesus’ words are God’s words, we must study and know them so that they impact everything we do.
Second, note that Jesus doesn’t give out helpful hints for happy living. He isn’t a therapist in the sky, suggesting that you may want to try His techniques to see if they work for you. He issues commandments! This means that you are not free to pick and choose the commands of Jesus that grab you or fit your agenda. He is the Lord, who speaks the words of God. His commandments are authoritative.
Third, to keep His commandments implies diligence and effort. The word “keep” was used of a sentry walking his post. It implies that the enemy is attempting to invade and dominate your life with temptations that will destroy you. To resist him, you must be vigilant so as to obey the commandments that Jesus has given. A faithful sentry is not laid back. He is alert and diligent.
A fourth observation is that knowing God and keeping His commandments are inextricably linked. John states that keeping His commandments is one way that we know that we know Him. Jesus said that if anyone keeps His commandments, He and the Father will love him and Jesus will disclose Himself to that person. We often hear about God’s unconditional love, and there is a sense in which it is so. But Jesus points to a conditional aspect of His love, namely, that it hinges on having and keeping His commandments. To the extent that you obey Jesus (and to that extent only) will you experience His love and to that extent only will you truly know Him.
The first part of verse 5 repeats what John has just said, but it also seems to go a bit farther. John moves from knowing God to the love of God, and from keeping His commandments to keeping His word, which seems to be broader. The Bible contains many specific commandments about how we should live, but it also includes many general principles that relate to how you think, to your motives, and to your goals. So we should obey all of God’s Word.
The phrase, “the love of God,” is ambiguous. It may mean “God’s love for us,” or, “our love for God.” Or, it may refer to God-like or divine love. Scholars are divided between the first two options, and it’s hard to decide. But perhaps it does not really matter, in that if God’s love for us is perfected in us, we will also love God. And, no one can really love God without first experiencing His love. So the two concepts are intertwined. “Perfected in us” means, “brought to maturity.” It means that the love of God has “fulfilled its mission,” or “has reached its goal” when it is consummated in our obedience (Robert Law, The Tests of Life [Baker], p. 213).
John Calvin understands the phrase to refer primarily to our love for God. He points out that Moses said the same thing (Deut. 10:12-13), “Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes which I am commanding you today for your good?” Calvin says (p. 176) that “the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.” Thus our obedience shows that we truly love God and have been laid hold of by His love.
Although some take the last phrase of verse 5 to point back, I understand it to point forward to verse 6: “By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” John equates being “in Him” with “abiding in Him.” “Abiding” is John’s term for fellowship or a close, intimate relationship. As with the phrases, “keeping His commandments” and “the love of God,” so also the term “abiding” goes back to the Upper Room Discourse, to Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches. There Jesus said (John 15:4), “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”
Dr. James Rosscup devotes an entire book to the theme of abiding in Christ as found in John 15. He sums up the concept of abiding in three ways (Abiding in Christ [Zondervan], p. 116, italics his): “Abiding involves a person’s relating himself to Christ the Vine, to His Person and His purpose; rejecting attitudes, words, actions, or interests which Christ’s Word reveals He cannot share; and receiving the quality-essence of Christ’s imparted life for authentic fulfillment.”
In our text, John says that if we are abiding in Christ, we will walk as He walked. This means that He is our supreme example for living. Jesus showed us how we should live in total dependence on the Father and in complete submission to His will, no matter how difficult. Jesus claimed (John 5:19), “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” He also said (John 8:29), “… for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.”
While no one can make similar claims, everyone who claims to abide in Christ should have the same focus and direction, not to act in independence from God, but in total dependence on Him. We should not live to please ourselves apart from God, but to do the things that are pleasing to Him.
Also, John’s words show us that the Christian life is a walk. That is a helpful metaphor that the apostle Paul uses often (Eph. 2:10; 4:1, 17; 5:1, 8, 15; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12). Walking is not as spectacular or swift as running, leaping, or flying, but it is a steady, sure movement in one direction. It implies progress toward a destination or goal. A walk is made up of many specific steps, but it points to the overall tenor or general quality of a life, not to any one step.
To walk as Jesus walked means that our lives should be characterized by daily dependence on God, submission to Him, and obedience to His will. Our overall aim in life will be to seek first His kingdom and righteousness. We will seek to please Him by our thoughts, words, and deeds. While we will never perfectly walk as Jesus walked, it should be our constant aim and effort to do so.
Thus John is saying that you can know that you truly know Christ if you walk in obedience to His Word. But someone may say, “As far as I know, I do believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I seek to obey Him. But, I often fall short. Since I can never walk perfectly in this life, how can I have complete assurance that I truly know Him?”
Calvin, who was not only a theologian, but also a pastor, answers this in a couple of ways. He points out that there is not anyone in human history, except for Jesus Christ, who has perfectly kept God’s commandments. If perfect obedience were the requirement, then no one could ever confidently say, “I know Him.” So Calvin says that keeping His commandments refers to “such as strive, according to the capacity of human infirmity, to form their life in conformity to the will of God. For whenever Scripture speaks of the righteousness of the faithful, it does not exclude the remission of sins, but on the contrary, begins with it” (p. 175).
Regarding the fact that no one loves God perfectly, Calvin replies, “that it is sufficient, provided every one aspired to this perfection according to the measure of grace given unto him. In the meantime, the definition is, that the perfect love of God is the complete keeping of his law. To make progress in this as in knowledge, is what we ought to do” (p. 176).
So the issue is, purpose, direction, and focus. If the purpose and direction of your life is to please God by obedience to His commands, you can know that you know Him. It does not mean that you never fail, but that when you do, you get up and keep walking in obedience, seeking to please God with all your life.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones sums up these verses (Walking With God [Crossway Books], p. 53): “If you have the life, it is bound to show itself, and if it does not, then you have not the life…. You cannot be receiving the life of Christ without becoming like Him. You cannot walk with God without keeping His commandments. You cannot know God without immediately, automatically loving Him. Love always manifests itself by doing what the object of its love desires.”
So ask yourself, first, “Do I know Christ?” Have you trusted in Him as the propitiation for your sins? If so, ask, “Do I know that I know Him?” How? “Do I obey His Word and seek to walk as Jesus walked?” If that is the direction and focus of your life, then you can know that you know Him.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2005, All Rights Reserved.
I think that we all chuckle at the Peanuts cartoon strip because so often we see the truth about ourselves there. That is especially so when Linus protests, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” Love in the abstract is a cinch. It’s loving those irritating people that I rub shoulders with that is not easy.
In 1 John 2:3-6, the apostle gives a test by which you can know that you truly know Jesus Christ, namely, if you walk in obedience to His word. In 2:6, he states, “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” Then, in 2:7-11, John goes on to apply this test of obedience more specifically to the area of love. If Jesus’ life and especially His death epitomized love, then those who claim to follow Him are obligated to live in love.
In the Upper Room, on the night He was betrayed, Jesus demonstrated His great love for the disciples by taking a towel and a basin of water and washing the disciples’ feet. After that unforgettable object lesson, He drove the point home (John 13:14-15), “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” He was not instituting a ceremonial foot-washing service, where everyone comes with clean feet to be washed! He was saying something much more difficult to practice, that we who follow Jesus must set aside our rights and serve one another out of love.
In that same chapter (John 13:34-35), Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Obviously, those words of Jesus were behind John’s words about the old, new commandment. It may be that the heretics against whom John was writing claimed to have some “new” truths. Using an obvious play on words, John counters them by saying that we don’t need new truth, but rather the old truth that his readers learned early in their Christian experience. On the other hand, if you want “new” truth, John says that the old commandment is the new commandment, which Jesus gave to us. In short,
Loving one another is an essential mark of a true Christian.
Having said that, I must quickly add that that we must define “love” biblically, not culturally. Culturally, if you mention the word “love,” people think of “niceness.” They picture a loving person as always being nice and sweet towards everyone. He never confronts sin or error. He never gets angry about evil or says anything that might upset someone.
But if you are at all familiar with the four gospels, you will immediately see that by this cultural definition, Jesus was not a loving man! Jesus loved the Jewish religious leaders when He said to them, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” (Matt. 23:15). He loved Peter when He said to him, “Get behind Me, Satan” (Matt. 16:23). He loved the multitude when He said to them, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matt. 17:17). The apostle Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit, whose first fruit is love, when he said to Elymas, “You who are full of all deceit and fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to make crooked the straight ways of the Lord?” Then, he struck him blind (see Acts 13:9-11).
I’m not saying that we should go around blasting people, while claiming that we’re loving them! I’m only pointing out that our definition of love, in a practical sense, must encompass all that the Bible says about love, not what our worldly culture says. John makes two points in our text:
In these two verses, John makes four points:
John never specifically identifies the old, new commandment in these verses, and he only mentions love once in this entire section (2:10). But his reference to the new commandment makes it obvious that he is referring to Jesus’ command to love one another.
This commandment was old in two senses. First, it was old in that Moses taught it in the Law, “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus identified this as the second greatest commandment, after the command to love God with all your being (Matt. 22:37-40). So in that sense, this command had been with God’s people for 1,400 years.
But the main sense in which this was an old commandment is that these believers had heard it from the very earliest days of their Christian experience (2:7): “… which you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard.” John uses the phrase, “from the beginning,” in the same way in 1 John 3:11, “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (also, 2 John 5).
But, John says (2:8), the commandment is also new, in that Jesus had issued it as the new commandment (John 13:34). John Stott (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 93) suggests four ways that this old commandment became new when Jesus issued it. First, it was new in its emphasis, in that Jesus brought it together with the command to love God as the summation of the entire Law. Second, it was new in its quality, in that His own self-sacrifice on the cross became the standard. Third, it was new in its extent, in that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus extended the definition of neighbor to go beyond race or religion. Anyone in need who crosses our path is our neighbor. He said that we should love even our enemies. Finally, it was new in the disciples’ continuing apprehension of it. The love of Jesus on the cross is inexhaustible. We can never plumb its depths. And so as we grow in our understanding of His great love, we will grow in our apprehension of how we must love one another. So Jesus’ command is both old and new.
John tells his readers that they have had this commandment “from the beginning,” and then identifies it as “the word which you have heard” (2:7). It was part and parcel with the gospel that they had believed at the outset of their Christian experience. When we hear and respond to the good news that Jesus Christ died for sinners, at that point the love of God is “poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). The first fruit of the Spirit is love (Gal. 5:22). As I mentioned, the entire Bible may be summed up by the two great commandments, to love God and to love one another. So learning how to establish and maintain loving relationships is not “graduate level” Christianity. It is basic, beginning Christianity.
Many of you came into the faith from backgrounds where you did not experience love. Your parents abused you verbally or physically. Maybe you were in a series of abusive relationships with the opposite sex. You’ve had no models of how to love other people. It is urgent, once you trust in Christ as your Savior, to learn from God’s Word and from more mature believers how to love others in a practical, daily manner. You will need to unlearn many bad ways of relating to others that you brought with you from the past. You will need to relearn how to think and speak and act in loving ways, especially toward those who wrong you. If you do not learn to love others, you will fester with anger and bitterness, and your relationship with Christ will suffer.
It all begins with how you think about others. Instead of thinking first about yourself, your feelings, your rights, and your needs, you must learn to think first about others. How can I show this difficult person the love of Jesus Christ? How can I serve this person in love? Rather than thinking angry thoughts about how he wronged you and how you’ll get even, you begin to think about how Jesus wants you to think about the one who mistreated you. You begin to pray for this person, that he would come to know Jesus. You look for opportunities to return good instead of evil. I recommend that you write out Paul’s description of love (1 Cor. 13:4-7) on a card and read it over several times each morning, until you have in your mind how a loving person acts. Do the same with 1 Peter 3:8-12.
Then, love extends to your speech. You put off abusive speech that tears down the other person, and you put on speech that builds him up (Gal. 5:15; Eph. 4:29, 31-32; Col. 3:8). You stop lying or stretching the truth to your own advantage and begin speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15, 25). You cease from gossip and slander (2 Cor. 12:20).
Then, in your behavior you begin to practice loving deeds (Rom. 12:9-13; Eph. 5:2). You look for opportunities to serve others, beginning in your home. You become “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). Again, this is not advanced, graduate level Christianity. This is freshman Christianity 101. But, maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t have the strength to do what you’re saying.” Then,
John says that this old, new commandment “is true in Him and in you” (2:8). It is true in Him because the Lord Jesus is the greatest example of love in the history of the world. He left the splendor and perfect holiness of heaven, where He enjoyed unbroken fellowship with the Father. He came to this cruddy, sin-stained world, not as the conquering King, but as a lowly servant. He was obedient to death on the cross at the hands of sinful men that He could have obliterated, if He had given the command. He did it all to save sinners who deserved His wrath. This new commandment is supremely true in Him.
But John also says that it is true in you. If you ask, “How so?” the answer is, “Because you are now in Him.” It is true in Him fundamentally and true in you derivatively because of your new relationship with Him. Paul often describes our new relationship as being “in Christ.” John uses the term, “abiding” in Him. The glorious truth of the New Testament is that we are joint-heirs with Christ of all His riches (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 1:19-20; 2:6)! So if you are lacking in love for a difficult person, pray, “Lord, You know that I am empty and unable to love this person. But, I am in You and You do not lack love, even for the unlovely. Please love this person through me!” Understanding your new relationship with Jesus Christ is central to practicing biblical love.
John adds (2:8), “… because the darkness is passing away and the true Light is already shining.” Primarily, John is referring to the dawning of the gospel through Jesus Christ (see Luke 1:78-79; John 1:9). His coming inaugurated a new era.
But in a secondary sense, what John says here applies to every person who has trusted in Christ. Paul put it (2 Cor. 4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (See also, Col. 1:12, 13.) Or, as Peter put it (1 Pet. 2:9), God saved us “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” So becoming a Christian is a radical change from darkness to light, where God opens your blind eyes to see something of the glory of Jesus Christ.
Yet at the same time, there is a process involved that takes time. The darkness does not dissipate instantly, but rather it is gradually dispelled as the true Light of Jesus Christ and God’s word shines more and more into your heart. When it comes to the practicalities of learning to live in love, it is a lifelong process. You never arrive at the place where you can say, “I love everyone perfectly now! Let’s move on!” Paul put it this way (1 Thess. 4:9-10), “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, …” Or, as he prayed for the Philippians, “that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9).
So, don’t be like the husband who grudgingly accompanied his wife to the marriage counselor. She complained to the counselor that he never told her that he loved her. The counselor asked, “Is this true?” The man gruffly responded, “I told her that 25 years ago when we got married, and it hasn’t changed!” You’ve got to work at growing in love on a daily basis for the rest of your life. To love one another is to obey our Lord’s commandment.
The phrase, “The one who says,” tips us off that John again has the heretics in mind. They claimed to be enlightened, and yet, apparently, they were arrogant and self-centered. They did not love others in a sacrificial way. They were using people to build a following for themselves, rather than building people to follow Christ. So John gets out his black and white paint again, and without mixing them into shades of gray, he shows that these false teachers were not true believers. They do not love; they hate. They are not in the light; they are in the darkness until now (2:9).
But we should not only use John’s words to identify false teachers. We should also apply them honestly to our own lives. Sadly, there are many that profess to know Christ, but in their marriages and towards their children they do not practice biblical love. Many evangelical churches are torn apart by conflict because certain powerful members did not get their own way. Rather than acting in love, they viciously attack those who don’t agree with them. So John shows that love is inseparable from the light, just as hatred invariably is bound up with darkness. He does not allow for any middle ground, where you can be sort of loving, but sort of cantankerous, too! He makes three points:
You may be thinking, “Hate is a pretty strong word! While I may not love that difficult person, I wouldn’t say that I hate him.” But John doesn’t let us go there! You either love the other person, which requires sacrificing yourself for that person’s highest good, as Jesus did for us on the cross (John 13:34)—or, you hate him.
Writing to a Gentile church situation, Paul contrasts the new way in Christ with the old life before he met Christ (Titus 3:1-3):
Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.
He goes on to talk of how God’s kindness and love transformed us through salvation. The point is, no matter how pagan or unloving your background, if you continue in a lifestyle of hate rather than a lifestyle of love, your profession of faith is suspect.
Whether “light” should be capitalized (NASB) to represent Christ or whether it refers to the truth of God’s Word, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter in that if you abide in Jesus Christ, you also abide in His Word, which sheds His light into your heart. To abide in the light means to live with your life exposed and open to God’s Word. You allow the Word to shine into the dark recesses of your mind, exposing and rooting out what is evil. John says that loving your brother is inseparable from abiding in the light.
If you love your brother and abide in the light, “there is no cause for stumbling” in you. This may mean that you do not cause others to stumble in their walk with God because, out of love for them, you only say and do that which builds them in Christ. Or, it may mean that the person who walks in the light will not stumble himself, because the light illumines his path (John 11:9-10).
In both senses, walking in love preserves you from sin. Failure to love often leads you into other sins. For example, lust and sexual immorality are serious sins, but both are rooted in a lack of love for others. To lust after a woman is to desire to use her to gratify your desires. It is a failure of love. Or, take the sins of greed, stealing, and murder. They all stem from a failure to love others. Invariably, those who commit these sins love themselves quite well! None of us need to work on loving ourselves, as the “Christian” psychologists repeatedly emphasize. The task is, to love others as we all in fact do love ourselves!
I’m not making up these points. I’m merely summarizing each of these verses. The plain meaning of verse 11 is that if you live for yourself with no regard for others, no self-sacrifice or willingness to be inconvenienced to meet others’ needs, then you are not saved. John is not talking about occasional lapses into selfishness. We all fail in that at times. Rather, he’s talking about a lifestyle (“walks”). The person who lives for himself and is indifferent towards others (which is what hatred means) “does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (2:11). He is spiritually blind, groping through life without the light of God’s Word to guide him in God’s ways.
I have often counseled with people who profess to know Christ, but their relationships are marked by anger, abusive speech, bitterness, and self-centeredness. Invariably, they don’t have a clue as to why they keep experiencing broken relationships. While I do not know their hearts (only God does), their lives do not give evidence that they have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ. Rather, they seem to be in spiritual darkness, blindly colliding from one broken relationship to the next. They do not practice biblical love, which is an essential mark of every true Christian.
Again, none of us loves perfectly. When we fail, we need to repent and ask forgiveness of the one we wronged. It is a lifelong process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. But those who have met Him at the cross will be growing in love for others.
Also, note that love for others is a commandment, not a warm, gushy feeling. That should give you hope, because God’s commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3) and God’s Spirit gives us the grace and power to obey His commands, which are for our good. Biblical love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. You can obey the commandment to love others!
So if you’re thinking, “But I don’t love my mate any more,” or, “I just don’t like that difficult person,” the Bible is clear: Get to work obeying God’s commandment to love him or her. It’s not optional for the follower of Christ. It’s essential!
Copyright 2006, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Years ago, a “Dear Abby” (Arizona Daily Sun [1/10/99]) column ran a story by a retired schoolteacher. One day she had her students take out two sheets of paper and list the names of the other students in the room. Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down by their names.
She took the papers home that weekend and compiled a list for each student of what the others had said about him or her. On Monday she gave each student his or her list.
Before long, everyone was smiling. “Really?” one whispered. “I never knew that meant anything to anyone.” “I didn’t know anyone liked me that much!”
Years later, the teacher went to the funeral of one of her former students, who had been killed in Vietnam. Many who had been in that class years before were there. After the service, the young man’s parents approached the teacher and said, “We want to show you something. Mark was carrying this when he was killed.” The father pulled out of a wallet the list of all the good things Mark’s classmates had said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”
A group of Mark’s classmates overheard the exchange. One smiled sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in my top desk drawer at home.” Another said, “I have mine, too. It’s in my diary.” “I put mine in our wedding album,” said a third. “I bet we all saved them,” said a fourth. “I carry mine with me at all times.” At that point, the teacher sat down and cried. And, she used that assignment in every class for the rest of her teaching career.
That story shows how much we all need encouragement. The apostle John has been dishing out some strong words as he warns the flock about the false teachers who were trying to deceive them. He has just said (2:11) that if you don’t love your brother, you’re in the darkness—not saved! He is about to say that if you love the world, you don’t have the Father’s love in you (2:15). But before he says that, he inserts this short section to encourage those who may have been troubled by what he had written.
John wants his readers, at whatever stage in the Christian life they are at, to consider what God has done in their lives. He wants them to know that they have authentic faith. (John inserts other similar assuring clarifications in 3:19-22 and 4:17-18.) John Calvin put it (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 182), “having faithfully spoken of good works, lest he should seem to give them more importance than he ought to have done, he carefully calls us back to contemplate the grace of Christ.”
Six times John uses the perfect tense in the explanatory (“because”) clauses. It describes action completed in the past with ongoing results. John Stott (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 98) explains, “John is laying emphasis on the assured standing into which every Christian has come, whatever his stage of spiritual development.” To grow, we must be assured and encouraged about what God has done and is doing in our lives.
In many ways this is a difficult text to understand. It raises several questions: (1) Why does John use “write” in the present tense three times and then shift to the aorist three times? (The NIV obscures this, translating them all the same.) (2) Why does he use different terms for “children”? (The NIV also obscures this; I recommend that you use the NASB or the ESV as a study Bible.) (3) Why does he say the particular things that he says with each group? Is there a reason for each emphasis? (4) Why does he repeat the exact words about the fathers, and almost repeat identical information about the other groups? (5) Why does he use the sequence: children, fathers, young men, rather than a chronological one?
I do not promise to give definitive answers to all of those questions, although I will try to explain some of them throughout the message. With regard to why John changes the tense of the verb, “I am writing,” I have not found any satisfactory answers, except that it is a stylistic change that calls attention to the repetitive structure of the text. As to why John repeats himself, perhaps the best answer is that as a good teacher, he used repetition to drive these points home. John’s main application is,
Wherever you’re at in your Christian walk, God wants you to be encouraged by His grace so that you will grow more.
Commentators divide over whether John is talking about two or three groups here. Those who advocate two groups point out that John uses the Greek word translated “little children” six other times in this epistle to address the entire church (2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21). The other word, translated “children” (2:13; 2:14 in Greek text) occurs again in 1 John only in 2:18, where it addresses the entire church. So they argue that John addresses the entire church under the terms, “little children” and “children,” and then divides them up into “fathers” and “young men.” This view also helps to explain why John does not follow a chronological order from youngest to oldest.
Others, however, argue that John is addressing three groups in terms of spiritual maturity (not chronological age). The odd order may be explained as his taking both ends of the spectrum first, and then showing the means of getting from the one end to the other. I am comfortable with this three-fold breakdown, as long as we keep in mind that what John writes to the little children also applies to every stage of the Christian life. Even mature believers need to remember that our sins have been forgiven and that we know God as our Father. Also, the little children in the faith and the young men need to see clearly the goal of becoming spiritual fathers, who “know Him who has been from the beginning.” And the children need to be prepared for the battles against the enemy that they must win in order to grow to maturity.
But the point is clear, both here and in other Scriptures, that we should never be complacent with where we’re at in our Christian walk, but should daily strive to know Christ better in order to grow to maturity. Physical growth is normal for children, and it’s always abnormal when children do not grow and mature. Even spiritual adults should always press on toward the goal of knowing Jesus Christ better and growing in godliness (Phil. 3:7-16; Heb. 5:11-6:3; Hos.
I’m convinced that God’s grace as shown to us on the cross is the greatest motivator to keep growing.
Frankly, often it is more difficult for those of us from Christian homes to appreciate God’s grace as the motivator to grow. Those who have been saved from a difficult past know where they would be if God had not intervened in their lives. They are more likely to see that they have been forgiven much, and thus to love Christ much (Luke 7:36-50).
Those of us who grew up in the church are prone to think pharisaically that we didn’t need as much forgiveness as the person with a sordid past. We need to see how wretchedly sinful our hearts really are. If God had let me go, I’d be enslaved to a multitude of terrible sins. With the hymn writer, we need to sing often, “O to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be; let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee” (Robert Robinson, “Come Thou Fount”). God’s grace encourages me to grow in my walk with Him. John presents three stages of growth:
Here we’re focusing on John’s twofold address to the “little children” (2:12) and the “children” (2:13). If there is a nuance of difference between the two terms, “little children” (from a Greek word meaning, to beget or bring forth) points to the relationship by birth between a child and his parents. “Children” (from a Greek word emphasizing training) points to children under discipline or training. By using both terms, John shows his authority as an apostle and his affection as a spiritual father to his family.
“I’m writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake” (2:12). Don’t ever allow yourself to read a verse like that and think, “Ho hum!” The forgiveness of all of your sins for His name’s sake is the greatest blessing in the whole world! Never get over the amazing truth that although you were a rebel who deserved God’s wrath, He graciously sent His Son to bear the penalty in your place!
As David exclaims (Ps. 32:1-2), “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, ….” After rehearsing the sins of Israel in the wilderness, Nehemiah (9:17b) proclaims, “But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”
Jesus’ last words to the disciples before He ascended into heaven were (Luke 24:47), “that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” John Bunyan has a wonderful book, “The Jerusalem Sinner Saved,” where he expounds on the fact that the good news of forgiveness of sins be proclaimed first in the very city that crucified the Savior.
When John tells the little children in the faith that their sins are forgiven “for His name’s sake,” he means that their sins are forgiven on account of the person and work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Our sins are not forgiven because of anything that we do. We cannot do penance to work off our debt of sin, because Jesus paid the debt in full. We cannot add good works to atone for our sins, because Jesus atoned for them fully through His blood.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But you don’t know all the terrible things that I have done. Doesn’t a really bad sinner have to do something to qualify for God’s forgiveness?” Learn from the apostle Paul, who calls himself the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). In Ephesians 1:7-8, he writes, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us.” Forgiveness of sins is for His name’s sake, not for anything you have done or can do. All you can do is receive it by faith.
Notice, too, that forgiveness of sins is something that the youngest child of God can and should experience. It is foundational to your Christian walk that you know that your sins are forgiven, not because of anything in you, but solely because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. The enemy will repeatedly come to accuse and condemn you for your sins. Answer him every time, not with your performance, but with the name and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I have written to you, children, because you know the Father” (2:13b). As with the forgiveness of sins, so knowing God as your Father is foundational to your Christian walk. In his classic book, Knowing God ([IVP], p. 182), J. I. Packer wrote,
You sum up the whole of New Testament teaching in a single phrase, if you speak of it as a revelation of the Fatherhood of the holy Creator. In the same way, you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s holy Father. If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all.
Recently our daughter and son-in-law and their 16-month-old daughter lived with us for three months. Our little granddaughter cannot talk in sentences yet, but she knows the word “daddy” (“Da-da” in her words). When she hears that daddy is home from work, she lights up with a smile and runs to see him. Little children love their daddy. They trust him to provide for all of their needs and to protect them from harm and danger. From an early age, they imitate their daddy. When they get older and go to school, they promote his glory by telling other kids what their daddy can do. If they are properly trained, they also learn to submit to their daddy’s authority.
From the earliest stage of our Christian life, we should know God as our Father. He loves us and cares for us far more than any earthly father ever could. As John will go on to say (3:1), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.” Knowing that God has forgiven all your sins and that He is your Father are foundational to your Christian life. Never forget these precious truths!
John jumps from the beginning to the end, before going back to the means of getting from one to the other. Both times, for emphasis, he repeats exactly the same thing, that the fathers “know Him who has been from the beginning.” The verb, know, is in the perfect tense, meaning, you have come to know Him and still know Him. The Greek verb means to know by experience.
But, why does John refer to God as “Him who has been from the beginning”? Why is this a distinctive of those who are spiritually mature? I suggest three reasons:
This phrase prepares us for the next section, where John says (2:17), “For the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives [lit., abides] forever.” The older you get, the more you realize how short and uncertain this life really is. As you grow older, you see more clearly that all of the things that people strive to attain—riches, recognition, pleasure, adventure, or whatever—fade away in the face of death and eternity. The earlier in your Christian life that you can learn that the Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal One, who was with the Father in the beginning, and that you will quickly step out of time and into eternity, the more you will grow spiritually. That eternal perspective will help you not to get enamored by the world and the things in the world.
Paul wrote (Eph. 1:8b-12),
In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.
Babes in Christ often stumble over the doctrine of God’s sovereign election, but spiritual fathers submit to it and, as Jesus did, they rejoice in it (see Luke 10:21-22). We rejoice in it because it means that salvation is not a matter of our feeble human will, but rather of God’s mighty will and purpose. All praise goes to Him for the wonder that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4)!
(See Rev. 1:8, 17.) All of God’s riches are ours in Christ. We will spend all eternity plumbing the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ, which surpasses all knowledge (Eph. 3:18-19). And so the goal of the Christian life is to grow into spiritual fathers, who “know Him who has been from the beginning.” Of course, that process never is complete, and so we should always be pressing on to know Him better. But, how do we grow from spiritual children to be fathers in the faith?
John writes to the young men, “because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (2:14). These words show us that the Christian life is not a perpetual Sunday School picnic! It is an intense battle with the enemy of our souls, who seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8).
While we can and should experience victories over the temptations that the enemy puts in our path, there is another sense in which such victories are never complete or final. He doesn’t give up! So we must understand the victories of these spiritually strong young men in a relative sense. Also, even when we win such victories, we are never strong in ourselves, but only in the Lord, and in the strength of His might (Eph. 6:10). Often the weapons that the enemy brings against us are not frontal, but rather deceptive. As Paul wrote (2 Cor. 11:3), “But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” So we must always be alert to his schemes (2 Cor. 2:11).
It is only when you allow the Word of God to abide in you that you will overcome the enemy’s schemes. The Lord Jesus overcame the tempter every time by citing Scripture (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). The only way that you will grow strong spiritually and overcome the evil one is to let the Word of God dwell in your heart by meditating on it day and night (Ps. 1:2) and treasuring it in your heart (Ps. 119:9, 11).
Most of us probably can remember our defeats much more easily than we can remember our victories. God doesn’t want your defeats to sabotage your Christian walk. His grace means that your sins are forgiven and that you are now His child. Knowing that should not lead you to sin more, but rather to be encouraged to grow more.
The German poet, Goethe, said, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.” The Bible has both, of course, in proportion to what we need. Here, John wants to encourage us, no matter where we’re at in our level of maturity. But to be effective, encouragement must be true, not mere flattery. The truest thing about you is what God says in His Word. If you have trusted in Jesus Christ, God says that your sins are forgiven for His name’s sake. He says that you have come to know Him as Father. He wants you to grow strong through His Word, so that you will overcome the evil one. As you do, you will grow into a mature believer, who knows Him who is from the beginning. That’s why John wrote these encouraging words.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Few problems have been more troublesome for believers down through the centuries than worldliness. In an effort to be “relevant” and reach our culture, there is the very real danger that we will become just like the culture and lose our distinctiveness. The apostle Paul warned of the danger in Romans 12:2, when he wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English [Geoffrey Bles], p. 332) paraphrases it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your lives from within.”
Toward the end of his life, Paul sadly wrote to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:10), “For Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Even though he had once been a fellow-worker with the great apostle Paul (Philemon 24), Demas succumbed to the lure of the world.
I would argue that with the pervasive influence of modern media, the tug of the world is greater now than it ever has been. Daily we are bombarded with attractive people telling us that we can’t be happy unless we own the product that they are selling or adopt the lifestyle that they are pursuing. We thumb through magazines that lure us with beautiful homes, new cars, luxury items, or expensive vacations that all can be ours, if we just get enough money or go into enough debt. There are plenty of credit card offers that will help us get hopelessly in debt, if we’re not careful. It is lust for the things of the world that prompts Americans to spend billions on casino gambling and lottery tickets. Just one lucky hit and you will have it all!
Christian attempts to counter worldliness often have swung to the opposite direction: withdrawal from the world, along with extra rules to reign in the flesh. This is the method of the monastic movement and of isolationist groups, such as the Amish. An extreme example of the ascetic approach was Simon the Stylite (c. 390-459), who lived in extreme austerity for 36 years on top of a platform on a 60-foot pillar. Thousands of people flocked to see this “unworldly” man and listen to his preaching. I doubt that Simon is a model of what John had in mind when he warned us not to love the world!
I grew up in Fundamentalist circles that had lists of what constituted “worldly” behavior. It usually included the “filthy five”: drinking, smoking, attending movies, playing cards, and dancing. Many Christian colleges required their students to sign pledges not to participate in these “worldly” activities. But they often went farther than that. When my dad was a student at one such Bible institute, he could not hold hands with my mother on campus, even though they were married! A student who was near graduation was publicly dismissed from the school because he put his arm around his fiancée in the back of the Institute bus, and a supporter of the school saw this “worldly” behavior and reported him!
Concerning such manmade rules, Paul wrote (Col. 2:23), “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” The rules approach to the problem of worldliness doesn’t work!
Worldliness is, at its core, a matter of the heart. If your heart is captured by the world, you will love the things of the world. If your heart is captured by the love of God, you will be drawn to Him and to the things of God. The only way that our hearts can be transformed so that we love God is by the supernatural new birth.
John wrote this letter to churches that were being infected and confused by certain heretics. They claimed to have enlightenment, but John says that they were still in the darkness. They tried to draw people into their inner circle of knowledge, but their doctrine and their practice revealed that they did not truly know God. John gives three tests by which his readers could evaluate these teachers and by which they could tell whether their own faith was sound: the moral test (obedience); the relational test (love for others); and, the doctrinal test (believing the truth about Jesus Christ).
In 2:3-6, John applies the first test: authentic faith obeys God’s commandments. In 2:7-11, he applies the second test: authentic faith loves God’s people. Then he pauses (2:12-14) to give an assuring clarification, showing his confidence that his readers do have authentic faith. Now, he resumes his application of the tests by showing that authentic faith is not of the world (2:15-17), but rather it knows and believes the truth about Jesus Christ (2:18-27). John characteristically draws a sharp line, with no middle ground: If you love the world, you do not love the Father. He shows that…
You must choose your love and then maintain your choice: you love either the world or the Father, but not both.
He’s saying the same thing that Jesus said (Luke 16:13), “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” He did not say, “You should not serve God and Mammon,” but, “you cannot” serve them both. You must make a basic decision in life: Will you live to know God and His eternal love, or will you live for this world and its fleeting pleasures? You can’t take a little of both.
Once you’ve made that decision, you must fight to maintain your choice against the strong current of the world. “Do not love” is a present imperative, indicating that it is an ongoing battle. “Love” is the Greek agape, indicating that it is a commitment, not a feeling, that John is commanding. The only way that you can fight the love of the world is to maintain and grow in your love for the Father. The old Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, has a sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” where he argues that the only thing powerful enough to drive out our love for the world is our new love for the Father. We need to define the key term:
The Greek word for “world,” cosmos, occurs 185 times in the New Testament. John uses it 105 of those times (78 in his Gospel, 24 in his epistles, and 3 in Revelation). It originally meant “order,” and it came to refer to the universe as the well-ordered ornament of God. (Our word “cosmetics” comes from the word. Applying cosmetics is an attempt to bring order!” It may refer to the physical world (John 1:10) or to the people of the world collectively (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2). In those senses, there is nothing wrong with loving the world. We should enjoy God’s creation and we should love sinful people who need to know the Savior.
But John also uses the word to refer to the evil, organized system under Satan, which operates through unbelieving people who are God’s enemies. He writes (1 John 5:19), “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Jesus spoke of the world hating both Him and those who follow Him (John 15:18-19). It operates on the basis of ungodly thoughts, attitudes, motives, values, and goals (Isa. 55:8-9). It does not seek to promote God’s glory or to submit to His sovereign authority. It is in this sense that we must not love the world.
When John adds that we are not to love “the things of the world,” he does not mean that you must hate your house and your car, although I sometimes do hate my car! Rather, he elaborates on those “things” in 2:16 as, “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” In other words, worldliness is primarily an attitude that is motivated by wrong desires and the wrongful promotion of self. A poor man who does not have many possessions may be very worldly because he desires those things as the key to happiness. But, a wealthy man may not be worldly in that he uses his possessions as a steward of God and as a means of promoting God’s purpose and glory.
So, to be worldly is to operate on the same principles as unregenerate people. It is to think and act out of selfishness, greed, pride, and personal ambition. It is to have a selfish desire for the things that you do not have and a sinful pride in the things that you do have. Rather than living to please God, who examines the heart, the worldly person tries to impress people, who look on things outwardly. For example, if you refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages because you want to impress others with how spiritual you are, and you take pride in your not drinking and look with contempt on those who do, you are actually being worldly by not drinking! I don’t say that to encourage anyone to drink! I’m only pointing out that worldliness is not a matter of keeping some list of dos and don’ts. It is a matter of your heart motives before God.
John makes two main points:
John states the main command: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world.” Then, he gives the implication: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” It is either/or, not both/and. “The love of the Father,” could mean His love for us. But to be parallel to the first half of the verse, it probably refers primarily to our love for God. John means that the one who loves the world does not love God. Or, conversely, our love for God should be the ruling principle of our lives. The only way that we can overcome the strong desires of the flesh and the world is to be consumed with loving God.
John uses “Father” to describe God in 2:15 & 16, as he did in 2:13, where he said that the children had come to know the Father. It focuses us on God’s tender love for us as His children (3:1). It is the Father’s first love for us that motivates us to love Him in response (1 John 4:19). In light of the Father’s great love in sending His own Son to be the propitiation for our sins and adopting us as His children, loving Him should be our great delight and joy.
It is significant that the Bible directs its commandments to our hearts or affections. The greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). Solomon wrote (Prov. 4:23), “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” As Jonathan Edwards argued in his “Treatise on Religious Affections” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” If your heart is cold toward the Father and captivated by the glitz of the world, you need to ask yourself, “Do I belong to the Father or to the world?”
So John’s commandment (2:15) challenges us: Choose your love. Either you love the world or you love the Father. You cannot straddle the line. The Father is a jealous lover who deserves and demands total allegiance. Loving the Father begins at the cross when you receive His supreme gift of love, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the substitute for your sins.
Any love relationship must be maintained, and that is true of your relationship with the Father. It is especially true in that the enemy is trying to lure you from the Father’s love with all of the temptations of the world, as John shows in 2:16. If you yield to them, you will maintain love for the world. In 2:17 he shows how to maintain your love for the Father.
Verse 16 is explanatory of verse 15 (“For”), showing how love for the things in the world does not come from the Father. Many have pointed out how the three aspects of temptation listed here parallel the way that Satan tempted Eve. She saw that the forbidden fruit was good for food (Gen. 3:6), which was an appeal to the lust of the flesh. She saw “that it was a delight to the eyes.” This appealed to the lust of the eyes. She also saw “that the tree was desirable to make one wise.” This appealed to the boastful pride of life.
The same pattern occurs in Satan’s temptation of Jesus (Luke 4:1-12). Satan urged Jesus to turn the stones into bread (the lust of the flesh). He showed Him all the kingdoms of the earth, offering to give them to Him (the lust of the eyes). He encouraged Him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, which could have been a source of pride in this miraculous accomplishment. Let’s examine John’s three aspects of “all that is in the world”:
“Lust” refers to a strong desire or impulse. It is used almost always in a negative sense in the New Testament. “Flesh” refers to our fallen nature, which is not eradicated at salvation. “The lust of the flesh” includes any strong desire or inclination of our fallen nature, including sexual sins, but also all activity that stems from the self-seeking, godless nature that we are born with.
Many natural desires are legitimate if they are kept under control and used in the sphere for which God designed them. The desires for food, companionship, sex, and security are legitimate when we keep them within God’s limits and when we do not allow them to usurp His rightful place in our hearts. But they become sinful when we seek to fulfill them in selfish, ungodly ways.
This term points to the sinful desires of greed and covetousness, to want that which you do not have, but which others may have. It also refers to the desires that stem from false, superficial values. Through our eyes, the world appeals to us to find satisfaction in the superficial, which never can satisfy. “Buy this bigger, newer home and you will be happy!” “Find a beautiful woman (or a handsome man) and you will be satisfied.” “Get the perfect job and have plenty of money and your inner longings will be quenched.” But, as is evident by the lives of the rich and famous, none of these things deliver what they promise.
While the lust of the flesh and lust of the eyes refer to the desire to have what you do not have, the boastful pride of life refers to sinful pride over what you do have. It is the desire to be better than others so that you can glory in yourself and your accomplishments.
There is a proper sense, of course, of doing your best in school, athletics, or at work in order to be a good steward of God’s gifts and to bring glory to Him. But it’s easy to forget that He gave you everything that you have (1 Cor. 4:7) and to start boasting in your achievements and possessions as if you attained these things by your own intelligence or hard work. It’s easy to think like Nebuchadnezzar, who said (Dan. 4:30), “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” God immediately drove him out into the fields to live as a wild beast until his heart was humbled!
We all battle these temptations daily, and we often fail. But John’s point is, if you go on yielding to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life as your way of life, you are not maintaining love for the Father. Rather, you are maintaining love for the world. Worldly people wallow in these things; God’s children fight them continually. How do we maintain our love for the Father?
To obey the Father is to maintain your love for Him. The opposite of loving the world is not only loving the Father, but also obeying Him—“doing the will of God.” “The will of God” here does not refer to following His direction in your life. It refers to obeying His commandments as revealed in His Word. As Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:10).
A key reason to obey God’s commandments is the transitory nature of this world and its lusts, as contrasted with the eternal promise of heaven: “The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides [lit.] forever” (2:17; the original NASB correctly translates “abides,” not “lives”). If you love the world or the things in the world, you will lose them all at death. All that the worldly person lives for is gone in an instant and means nothing in light of eternity. Even if you have attained your worldly desires, what good are they at death? But, if you do God’s will, you will abide with Him in heaven throughout all eternity!
In 1989, Tom Sine wrote some insightful words that apply just as much now, as then (Christianity Today [3/17/89], p. 52):
Whatever commands our time, energy, and resources commands us. And if we are honest, we will admit that our lives really aren’t that different from those of our secular counterparts. I suspect that one of the reasons we are so ineffective in evangelism is that we are so much like the people around us that we have very little to which we can call them. We hang around church buildings a little more. We abstain from a few things. But we simply aren’t that different. We don’t even do hedonism as well as the folks around us … but we keep on trying.
As a result of this unfortunate accommodation, Christianity is reduced to little more than a spiritual crutch to help us through the minefields of the upwardly mobile life. God is there to help us get our promotions, our house in the suburbs, and our bills paid. Somehow God has become a co-conspirator in our agendas instead of our becoming a co-conspirator in His. Something is seriously amiss.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself, to evaluate whether you love the world or the Father (adapted from A. W. Pink, Exposition of 1 John [Associated Authors and Publishers], p. 126):
Which do you seek with more fervor: the wealth and honors of the world, or the riches of grace and the approval of God?
Which have the greater attraction: the pleasures of the world, which are only for a season, or those pleasures at God’s right hand, which are for eternity?
Wherein lies your confidence: in the money you have in your bank account or investments, or in the living and faithful God, who has promised to supply all your needs?
Which causes the deeper sorrow: a temporal loss, or a break in your fellowship with God?
Upon which do you get more joy: spending money for personal comforts and luxuries, or spending money to further the gospel?
What most dominates your mind: thoughts and schemes after worldly advancements, or resolutions and efforts to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord?
Some of you need to make the basic choice: Will you love the Father, or will you love the world? Most of us have made that choice, but we need to maintain it. Do not yield to the temptations of the world, but do the will of God. You will abide forever!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
The March, 2006, issue of Reader’s Digest features a cover story on ten money scams to beware of. It seems that the Internet and other modern technologies have opened many doors of opportunity for con artists who are after your money. To avoid being ripped off you must stay alert.
It’s traumatic when thieves steal your identity and your money, but there is something far more traumatic and tragic, namely, when spiritual con artists, who claim to be Christian, deceive the unsuspecting. The stakes are much higher than someone’s life savings. The eternal destiny of souls is at risk! Since the days of the New Testament, Satan has planted these deceivers in Christian churches, where they prey on the untaught or on those who are disgruntled. To avoid spiritual deception, you must develop biblical discernment and be vigilant at all times.
But we live in a day when the whole idea of spiritual discernment is minimized because spiritual truth is minimized. The slogan is, “Doctrine divides. Let’s set aside our doctrinal differences and come together on the areas where we agree.” Another popular mantra is, “Jesus said that they will know that we are His disciples by our love, not by our doctrine.” The implication is, “Set aside your doctrinal views and accept anyone who says that he believes in Jesus.” Tolerance, unity, and love are viewed as much more important than doctrinal truth, which often smacks of pride.
I have had my share of unpleasant encounters with those who arrogantly claim to have the truth. They beat you up with it, not showing much grace or kindness. But we should not allow such experiences to cause us to throw out the biblical emphasis on sound doctrine. It is not a minor theme in the Bible!
It is highly significant that John, the apostle of love, who has just written that love is an essential mark of the true Christian (2:7-11), now calls these false teachers “antichrists” and “liars”! He doesn’t call them “brothers in Christ,” who just have different ways of understanding things. He makes it plain that they were trying to deceive the true Christians and that they were not Christian in any sense of the term. True biblical love is not divorced from an emphasis on biblical truth. To compromise the truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ is to be hateful to the core, because such error results in the eternal damnation of those who embrace it.
In these verses, John applies his third test by which you may evaluate the soundness of a teacher, as well as your own life. He has already given us the moral test of obedience to God’s commandments (2:3-6). He has given the relational test of love (2:7-11). Now he gives the doctrinal test of truth about the person and work of Jesus Christ (2:18-27). He says,
To avoid spiritual deception, be discerning of people and doctrine.
The section (2:18-27) falls into three parts. In 2:18-20, John shows that to avoid spiritual deception, you must develop discernment with regard to people. In 2:21-23, he shows that you must develop discernment with regard to doctrine, especially, the truth about Jesus Christ. In 2:24-27 (which we will study next week), he shows that the means of developing such discernment is to abide in the Word and in the Spirit.
John contrasts the false teachers with true believers. He addresses all of his readers as “children,” (see 2:13), implying their vulnerability and the need to be on guard against these unprincipled men who were trying to deceive them (2:26). As a wise spiritual father, John is giving important counsel that will help us avoid being deceived.
He says, “It is the last hour.” The way that we know it is the last hour is that “many antichrists have appeared.” Some have said that John mistakenly thought that Jesus would return in his lifetime. Such a view undermines the divine inspiration of Scripture. If you buy into it, you cannot trust anything that the apostles wrote. You become the judge of Scripture according to what strikes you as true. This view also impugns the intelligence of the apostles. John had heard Jesus say that no one knows the hour of His coming (Matt. 24:36). It is not reasonable to accuse him of being mistaken here about the time of the second coming.
Rather, John is calling the entire period between Jesus’ ascension and His return “the last hour.” No one knows how long this period will last, but the phrase, “the last hour,” implies a sense of urgency, in that Jesus may come at any moment. Jesus concludes His teaching on the end times with this application to the wise hearer: “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13:33).
John says that a distinguishing feature of this age is that antichrist is coming and that even now many antichrists have appeared. John is the only New Testament writer to use this word, and it only occurs five times in four verses (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7). But the concept of the antichrist is more frequent. Daniel 7 talks about the horn and Revelation 13 talks about the beast, both of which refer to antichrist. Paul (2 Thess. 2:1-12) mentions the man of lawlessness who will exalt himself and display himself as being God. His coming will be “in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9). He will deceive many, who will perish. When John says that antichrist is coming, he refers to this future evil leader.
But when he says, “even now many antichrists have appeared,” he means that the evil spirit that will characterize the final antichrist is already working in these false teachers who have left the churches. The prefix, “anti,” can mean either “instead of” or “in opposition to.” It may contain both ideas here. The false teachers rise up within the church and present a system that subtly presents something instead of Jesus Christ. The false teacher may use the same label, “Jesus Christ,” but he will not be the same Jesus that is presented in the Bible. If a gullible person takes the bait, he is led farther away until finally he is in total opposition to Christ.
These false teachers, whom John labels antichrists, did not carry pitchforks and wear red suits with horns and a tail, or T-shirts saying, “Warning: I am an antichrist!” Rather, they arose in the churches. Some of them may have been elders or pastors, who for a while had taught the truth. Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Now these men were leaving the churches to form new groups, saying, “We have come into a deeper knowledge of the truth. Follow us and we’ll let you in on this secret knowledge.” John gives three guidelines to watch for:
False teachers invariably adopt Christian terminology and posture themselves as being Christians, but they are not. They usually begin within the church (2:19) and at first, their teaching is orthodox. They often have attractive personalities and they build a following of people who seem to be helped by their teaching.
But, eventually, they begin subtly to veer from the truth. There may be multiple motives. Sometimes, they fall into immorality, and to justify their sin, they have to deny Scripture. Or, they may love the acclaim of being popular, along with the financial rewards that often go along with a successful ministry. It feels good to be in demand as a speaker, to stay in luxury hotels and speak to large crowds. As a man’s popularity grows, he grows in power. He hires a loyal group of lieutenants who carry out his wishes. No one dares to challenge the man’s teaching or lifestyle, even though he is preaching heresy and living in disobedience to Scripture. But, in spite of his deviance, he is still trafficking in the realm of religion.
Note, also, that there has never been a perfect church, even in New Testament times while the apostles were still living. We sometimes idealize the early church, thinking that if we could just get back to the New Testament principles, we wouldn’t have all of the problems that we constantly battle in the modern church.
But, these early churches had gone through the damage of false teachers in their midst, who now had left the churches to form new groups. Undoubtedly, they took with them people from the churches. Whenever that happens, those who still are in the church are confused and wounded. They wonder, “Why did our friends leave? They claim that they have found the truth now and that we are in the dark. Maybe there are problems here. Maybe we should leave, too.” This is how the enemy has worked from the earliest days of the church. Don’t be surprised when it happens.
“They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (2:19). John’s words here do not apply to people who get disgruntled in one evangelical church and leave to join or form another evangelical church. While that practice is usually regrettable and sad, it is wrong to label those who left as heretics, unless they also have abandoned core Christian truth.
Heretics not only eventually separate themselves from true Christians to form their own groups, but also, they deviate from orthodox Christian doctrine on major issues. They claim that they have the truth and that others do not, or that they now see things that others do not see. And, invariably they try to recruit others from within the church to join them.
While such situations are painful and unpleasant, John’s words here should prepare us not to be surprised or disheartened when it happens. If it happened to the churches under John’s care, it can and will happen to churches today. But, when it happens, we need to think biblically about some issues.
First, true Christians are born of God. The key issue with these false teachers was, they were not of us. They did not share the new life in Christ that brings us into His body, the church. So, they felt free to leave. You can be on the membership list of the church without having experienced the new birth. While I believe that it’s important to join a church, it is far more important to make sure that you’re truly of the church through the new birth.
Second, if you truly know Christ, you will persevere with the church. It is imperfect. It contains difficult and irritating people. But, it is family! You were born into it through the new birth, and so was everyone else who has truly trusted Christ. While you may not have picked these folks to be in your family, God picked them and you’ve got to learn to get along with them! Although they often grate like sandpaper against your soul, it’s by persevering with them that God smoothes your rough edges. You will experience hurt feelings and misunderstandings if you get involved in a local church! Be committed to work through these matters. Don’t bail out on the church!
Third, note that John was more concerned about purity of doctrine than he was about church growth or unity. He never says, “We should go after these dear brothers and bring them back!” Or, “Let’s set aside our differences and love these men.” Rather, he says in effect, “Their departure shows their true colors. Let them go!” Of course, we need to evaluate the seriousness of the doctrinal matter at hand. Sometimes sincere Christians have to agree to disagree or even to work in separate parts of the Lord’s vineyard. But if the doctrinal issue is a core matter of the faith, purity is much more important than unity or church growth. We should not measure a church’s success by the numbers who attend, but rather by its faithfulness to the truth of the gospel.
So John says, “Beware, Satan works in the realm of religion. Beware of anyone who breaks from the true church to form a new group with new theology.”
The test of orthodoxy is submission and adherence to the apostolic teaching contained in the New Testament. If someone comes up with some new “truth” that no one else has discovered since the days of the apostles, beware! The heretics claimed that they had now been initiated into a deeper level of truth than the average church member had experienced. It always flatters our pride to think that we have some level of truth that others lack, or we have had some special spiritual experience that other poor souls are missing out on. These false teachers were claiming such knowledge and offering it as bait to those who had yet to be enlightened.
This is probably the background to verse 20. There is a textual variant here. The KJV (and New KJV) follows the reading, “you know all things.” Most other versions follow the reading (probably original), “you all know.” John is telling his readers that spiritual knowledge is not restricted to some elite inner circle. Rather, they all know the truth of the gospel because they all have the anointing from the Holy One, which refers to the indwelling Holy Spirit that Jesus, the Holy One, promised to send.
The false teachers may have been using the word “anointing” as a technical term for being initiated into their special gnosis, or knowledge (John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 107). But John takes their term and uses it of the Holy Spirit. At the moment of the new birth, God’s Spirit opens our blind eyes to see the truth about our sinfulness and the all-sufficiency of what Christ did on the cross to pay for our sins. This simple gospel message is what these believers had heard from the beginning (2:24). Rather than moving on from it to some “new truth,” they needed to abide in the old gospel truth that they had believed from the start.
So John’s first point is that to avoid spiritual deception, be discerning of people. Satan disguises himself as an angel of light and his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:14, 15). But, they are liars and deceivers!
The late philosophy professor Allan Bloom began his 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind ([Simon and Schuster], p. 25), “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.” He goes on to say (pp. 25-26), “The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.”
He was right: We live in a day that has rejected the idea of absolute truth, especially in the spiritual realm. It smacks of arrogance to say that you know the truth and that others who do not share your view are wrong. You’re free to have your own spiritual opinions, as long as you don’t claim that your view is the only true view.
This prevailing tenant of postmodernism has now invaded the church through “the emergent church.” This growing movement downplays preaching (what could be more arrogant than for one man to stand up and say that he is proclaiming the truth?). And it magnifies sharing personal experiences in an accepting, non-judgmental atmosphere.
Notice how contrary this is to John’s statement in 2:20, “you all know,” and to 2:21: “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” That sure sounds like John believed in absolute truth in the spiritual realm, and that you can know when you’re right and others are wrong! There are three implications here, which I can only touch on briefly:
John says (2:23), “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father.” He goes on to say (2:25) that all of this concerns God’s promise to us about eternal life. That’s fairly important! If you deny the truth about God’s Son as revealed in the New Testament, you do not have the Father and you do not have eternal life!
A popular sentimental, syrupy view goes, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” When you share Christ with someone who buys into this thinking, he will respond, “It’s nice that you believe that, but I have my own beliefs.” According to this view, sincerity is the main thing; truth doesn’t matter. That is utter nonsense! You can sincerely drink poison, believing that it is medicine, but it will kill you just the same. Sound doctrine really matters!
John says that if you deny the Son, you do not have the Father. He goes on to talk about abiding in the Son and the Father (2:24). “Abiding” is John’s word for fellowship or a close relationship with God. His point is that if you deny cardinal truth about Jesus Christ and yet claim to know God, you are deceiving yourself. This is not to say that a new believer must be able to give precisely correct theological statements about the trinity or the two natures of Christ in order to be truly saved. But it is to say that if someone knowingly makes heretical statements about Christ and is not open to correction, his salvation is suspect. Sound doctrine necessarily goes along with a genuine personal relationship with God.
Most heresies go astray with regard to the person or work of Jesus Christ. John Calvin pointed out that since Christ is the sum of the gospel, heretics especially aim their arrows at Him. The only way that we can know the Father is through the Son (John 14:6). These false teachers were denying that Jesus is the Christ (2:22). This probably was more than a denial that Jesus was the Old Testament Messiah. The context here, which refers to Jesus as the Son of God and which closely links the Father and the Son, indicates that these false teachers denied the full deity of Jesus Christ. They denied the incarnation, that God took on human flesh in the virgin birth of Jesus. They taught that “the Christ” came upon the human Jesus at His baptism and departed at His crucifixion. John says that they denied both the Father and the Son.
The modern cults all go astray on the person and work of Jesus Christ. They deny His deity and His substitutionary death on the cross. They deny the trinity. Some of them speak in Gnostic fashion of “the Christ within us all.” By denying the Son of God, they do not have the Father. In the words of this apostle of love, they are liars, deceivers, and antichrists.
We should be diligent to preserve the unity of the body of Christ, but not at any cost. There is no room for compromise on the core beliefs of Christian orthodoxy, especially the truths about the person of Christ and the gospel.
During World War Two, Neville Chamberlain of Britain tried to keep the peace by appeasing Adolf Hitler. After giving Poland to Hitler, Chamberlain went back to England proclaiming “peace in our times.” But Winston Churchill wisely observed, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.” Sure enough, Hitler later tried to eat Britain, too.
If we compromise truth to appease a heretic or to keep him in the church, it will lead to our ultimate spiritual demise. To avoid spiritual deception, be discerning of people, especially of religious people who claim to have some new truth. Be discerning of sound doctrine. Know your Bible well. Study systematic theology. Study church history. Most errors today have been around for centuries. Next time we will study John’s antidote to heresy, to abide in the Word and in the Spirit.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Last year I heard John MacArthur say that when he began in the ministry, he never dreamed that he would have to spend a major portion of his time and energy defending the gospel among those in the evangelical camp. But it has been so.
As you probably know, he has written several books to defend the gospel against those who deny that saving faith inherently requires submission to Christ’s lordship. He also has written and preached against those who are calling for evangelicals to set aside justification by faith alone, so that we can be reconciled with the Catholic Church. He is speaking out against the “seeker” churches, which dodge the issues of sin and judgment so as not to offend “seekers.” He recently edited Fool’s Gold [Crossway Books], which deals with the theme of discernment. It has a chapter by Phil Johnson defending the gospel against a relatively new error that is called, “the new perspective on Paul.”
Since the days of the early church, Satan has actively opposed the truth of God’s Word, especially with regard to the gospel. Repeatedly he has raised up false teachers within the church in attempts to deceive God’s people. The apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders that “from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). And so a major theme throughout the entire New Testament, including John’s epistles, is that God’s people need to develop discernment so that they can avoid spiritual deception.
Last week, we saw that to avoid spiritual deception, we must be discerning of people (2:18-21). Satan works in the realm of religion, using the Bible and Christian terms. We should beware of any that leave the true church to form a new group with new theology, or of anyone offering new “truth” that others have missed. Also, we must be discerning of doctrine (2:22-23). Sound doctrine really matters, because it is inextricably linked with a personal relationship with God. Also, sound doctrine about the person and work of Jesus Christ is vital. Satan usually hits that subject because it is so important.
In 1 John 2:24-27, the apostle continues the theme of avoiding spiritual deception. He shows us how to develop the discernment that we need to persevere in the faith:
To avoid spiritual deception, develop discernment by abiding in the Word and in the Spirit.
If you are paying attention to the text, you may be thinking, “I don’t see any mention of the Word or the gospel in these verses. Where are you getting that?” I’m getting it from John’s repetition of the phrase, “what you heard from the beginning” (2:24). What these believers had heard from the beginning was the teaching of the apostles, especially their teaching on the core issue of the gospel. John begins this letter with the words, “What was from the beginning,” which refers to Jesus Christ Himself. The person and work of Jesus Christ is the gospel.
When John tells us to abide in what we heard from the beginning, he does not necessarily mean that you should never change the beliefs that you have held since childhood. To do so would only perpetuate error if your parents had been wrong! Rather, he means, if you began with the gospel and with the sound doctrine of the apostles, whose teaching is the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), why depart from these sure truths for the religious speculations of these false teachers? We have the apostles teaching in the New Testament. John is telling us to abide in these certainties.
John makes four points about the gospel here. Then we can draw two applications.
The false teachers were claiming to have special revelation apart from the Word, but their revelations were subjective philosophical nonsense. By way of contrast, the apostles had been with Jesus Christ. They had heard His teaching and seen His miracles. They saw Him risen from the dead. They knew that the entire Old Testament pointed to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:44, 45). He fulfilled all of its prophecies and its law (Matt. 5:17; Rom. 10:4). Even Paul, who was not a part of the twelve, had a personal encounter with the risen Lord Jesus and said that he received the gospel that he preached directly from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-17).
The point is, the gospel is not the result of philosophic speculations or mystical revelations. It is the witness to Jesus Christ Himself, written in the New Testament by men who had seen the risen Lord. You can’t learn the gospel by going out into nature and having a mystical, aesthetic experience, although God’s glory is reflected there (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20). You can’t attain a knowledge of the gospel through philosophy or logic. But you can learn the truth of it in God’s Word, which tells about Jesus Christ. One of the most succinct statements of the gospel is the familiar John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Any deviance from the truth of the gospel is heresy. It is spiritual deception, coming straight from Satan himself.
John states (2:24b), “If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father.” The gospel is not only a set of doctrines to agree to, but a personal relationship with the living God through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” He also said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” If you have not trusted personally in Jesus Christ to forgive your sins and to give you eternal life, then you do not understand the gospel.
The apostle Paul was a devout Jew, fastidiously keeping all of the rituals and rules of the Jewish faith. But he did not have eternal life and he did not know God personally. After his conversion experience on the Damascus Road, he wrote that he counted all of his previous experiences as loss “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). If you do not know Christ personally, don’t settle for religion! Ask God to open your eyes so that you will abide in the Son and in the Father!
John writes (2:25), “This is the promise which He Himself promised [lit.] us: eternal life.” What could be greater! Apart from the gospel, we are all under God’s righteous condemnation because of our sins. We all face death and then judgment. The great news of the gospel is that God did not come to us and say, “Here are the rules and rituals that you must keep for all of your life, and then if you don’t commit a mortal sin, and you have enough relatives to pray and pay your way out of Purgatory, you might get into heaven!” That’s not good news! The good news is that God Himself promised us eternal life! Why turn to anything else?
The fact that eternal life is God’s promise means that it is not something that we have to work for or deserve. You see this all through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. When they let the paralytic down through the roof on a stretcher in front of Jesus, He said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). What had the man done to deserve that? Absolutely nothing! It was a free gift! When the notoriously sinful woman wet Jesus’ feet with her tears and anointed them with perfume, even though her sins had been many (Luke 7:47), Jesus said, “Your sins have been forgiven” (Luke 7:48). He forgave them all! Or, when the guilty thief on the cross next to Jesus asked, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” Jesus responded, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42, 43).
What could be greater news than that God promises eternal life as a free gift to any guilty sinner who will receive it by faith? If God promises eternal life apart from works, why turn to a system of religious bondage that cannot deliver eternal life even after a lifetime of striving after it? Apart from spiritual blindness and the pride that wants to take credit for salvation, there is no way to explain why anyone turns to false religions to save them. The gospel alone proclaims (Rom. 4:5), “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
John writes (2:26), “These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.” As I said last week, from the earliest days, while the apostles were still living, the enemy has sown confusion in the churches about the gospel. In his last letter before his death, Paul warned Timothy (2 Tim. 3:13), “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” He goes on to exhort Timothy to continue (the same Greek word that is translated abide in John) in the Word, which is able to bring us to salvation.
If Satan can cause confusion about the gospel, everything else is affected. It is the domino that causes all the others to fall. At the start of this message, I mentioned several errors that center on the gospel, which are currently in the evangelical camp. I can’t comment on them all, but I will touch on a couple of them. By the way, as John Calvin notes, it is the duty of a godly pastor to drive away the wolves and to warn the flock about those who pervert the gospel. One of the qualifications for an elder is that he be able to exhort in sound doctrine, and also that he refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). I would not be a faithful pastor if I only spoke to you about positive, heartwarming matters, but did not also warn you of these insidious errors.
Take the error that believing in Christ for salvation does not include repenting of sin or submitting to Jesus as Lord. The man who taught the course on 1 John that I took in seminary is one of the leading proponents of this error. As a result of this teaching, there are thousands in evangelical churches who claim to be born again, but they habitually live in sin. They’ve been assured that because they received Christ, they are going to heaven. But as Paul describes such people (Titus 1:16), “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” They will be shocked when they stand before the Lord and hear Him say (Matt. 7:23), “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
Or, take the error of the seeker churches. They take surveys to determine what people want from a church. Those who have been turned off by legalism or by guilt-producing, fire and brimstone sermons, have said, “We would like a church that is upbeat and positive. We want modern music. We want to feel good about ourselves when we leave. We want help with how to succeed in our families and our careers. But keep it light and on the short side.”
So, the church marketers have gone back to the drawing boards. They’ve devised a church service that only lasts an hour. The music is contemporary and not too heavy on doctrine. There are skits or other entertaining acts. The messages avoid controversial or difficult subjects like sin, judgment, or righteousness. The “gospel” is packaged as, “If you’ve got problems, try Jesus. He will help you become all that you’ve ever wanted to be.” But, where is the message of Scripture, that our sins have alienated us from a holy God, and that we must repent? Where is any careful, verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture? It’s not there.
No one has written more incisively on this than David Wells in his three books, No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, and Losing Our Virtue [all Eerdmans]. (His booklet, The Bleeding of the Evangelical Church [Banner of Truth] is on our book table.) In God in the Wasteland (p. 30) he writes,
The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.
All of this leads to two applications:
Never grow tired of the gospel!
Don’t think that you do not need to hear it and meditate on it over and over. Although I’ve been preaching it now for 29 years, I still find that there are depths in the gospel that I need to plumb. The angels long to look into the truths of the gospel (1 Pet. 1:12). Let that which you heard from the beginning abide—dwell, be at home—in you!
Let the Word abide in you!
Read it over and over. Know it so well that you can instantly spot deviations from it. Be at home in the Word and let the Word be at home in your life, in the sense that you apply it to every area of life. To avoid spiritual deception, develop discernment by abiding in the Word, especially with regard to the truth of the gospel.
John has three purposes in verse 27: to explain, to comfort, and to warn the flock (A. W. Pink, Exposition of 1 John [Associated Publishers and Authors], p. 182). He explains that the reason they have remained in the truth is not due to anything in them, but rather it is due to God’s gracious gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thus they should ascribe all glory to Him and not boast in their own intellect or grasp of doctrine. John also wrote to comfort them in the face of many of their friends leaving the church for this new, heretical teaching. He tells them that the anointing they had received would abide with them and teach them all things, so that they would not fall into these errors. John also wanted to warn them to continue in vigilance. Comfort should never cause us to let down our guard.
We must interpret verse 27 in its context and in light of the entire New Testament. John is not saying that the church does not need godly teachers to instruct the flock. If that were his meaning, he would invalidate this entire letter, which contains a lot of teaching! He would also contradict the apostle Paul, who taught that God gives gifted teachers to the church to help believers grow to maturity (Eph. 4:11-16; Col. 1:28).
Rather, John means that they do not need the elite gnosis of the false teachers to let them in on God’s “secret truth.” Rather, every Christian has the indwelling Holy Spirit to enable him or her to understand and interpret Scripture. When the Spirit applies the word of the gospel to the soul, we receive it, not as the word of man, but of God (1 Thess. 2:13). Through the Word, the Holy Spirit reveals to us the riches that God has prepared for us (1 Cor. 2:9-12). This is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. You do not need an elite order of clergymen to give you the official interpretation of biblical truth, especially of the gospel. Read the Word for yourself, in dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This is not to say that every passage of Scripture is easy to understand! Nor is it to say that you should not read commentaries to try to discover the correct interpretation of difficult texts. But it is to say that on the essential truths of the Bible, any Christian who can read and who makes the effort to compare Scripture with Scripture in reliance on the Holy Spirit, can grasp the meaning. In John’s mind was Jesus’ promise (John 14:26), that the Holy Spirit would teach the disciples all things.
Jesus also called Him “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), which is behind John’s words here, that He “is true and is not a lie.” This means that the truth of the gospel is not a subjective matter of personal interpretation. It is not something that I see one way and you see it another way, but both ways are right. Rather, it is objectively, absolutely true in every culture and every age. You must believe it to be saved and any contradiction of the gospel is a lie.
The Spirit always works in conjunction with the Word.
He does not give direct revelation today on a par with Scripture. The false teachers were claiming to have direct revelations from the Spirit, but their teaching contradicted the Word. If you get some “insight” that you think came from God, but it does not line up with God’s Word (interpreted properly in context), your “insight” is not from the Holy Spirit! Or, if someone says to you, “The Lord told me…” be careful! Sometimes they will even use a verse of Scripture, but invariably it is taken out of context. The Holy Spirit always leads us to the Word and to a deeper understanding of the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit abides in you, but you also must abide in the Spirit.
John says that the anointing abides in you, but the last part of the verse should be a command, “abide in Him.” John uses “abide” five times in verses 24 & 27. As we’ve seen, it is his term for fellowship, or for maintaining a warm, close relationship with the Lord. Let the Holy Spirit be at home in every area of your life, and you be at home in every area of His Word. Don’t keep any secret closets locked away from Him. Give Him entrance to every nook and cranny of your thoughts and emotions. To live closely and openly before the Holy Spirit in His Word is the best safeguard against spiritual deception.
Another example of the subtle intrusion of spiritual deception in the evangelical church is the book and ministry, Wild at Heart [Thomas Nelson] by John Eldredge. Our Southwest CBA sponsored a men’s conference with one of their speakers that was, shall we say, wildly popular. I did not attend, but I read the book and I’m baffled at what the attraction is for men who are seeking to know the Lord. The book is only mildly Christian, at best. Yet it has a glowing endorsement from Chuck Swindoll in the foreword!
As Daniel Gillespie critiques it in Fool’s Gold (pp. 79-95), it has an insufficient view of Scripture, an inadequate picture of God, an incomplete portrait of Christ, and an inaccurate portrait of man. To amplify just the first of these criticisms, Eldredge quotes Scripture (often out of context) and uses biblical examples to support his position. But he also cites movies and other sources as if they are just as authoritative and helpful for godly living as the Bible. He even acknowledges this directly (p. 200, cited by Gillespie, p. 81),
God is intimately personal with us and he speaks in ways that are peculiar to our own hearts—not just through the Bible, but through the whole of creation. To Stasi he speaks through movies. To Craig he speaks through rock and roll…. God’s word to me comes in many ways—through sunsets and friends and films and music and wilderness and books.
Eldredge cites a supposed revelation that he had where God told him he was like some macho movie heroes. Gillespie comments (p. 83), “it’s hard to envision the Lord of the universe resorting to movies to reveal spiritual truth.”
This is just another example of why you need to be on guard. The enemy is actively spreading spiritual deception in the church. To avoid it, develop discernment through God’s Word and through the Holy Spirit.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
We have enjoyed watching some of the Winter Olympics on TV over the last couple of weeks. Some of the feats of the athletes are simply incredible! I wonder how those who do the aerial ski acrobatics and the ski jump do it for the very first time. They both look like sure acts of suicide!
One thing is obvious with all of the Olympic athletes: they have spent years preparing for the big event. Nobody tries a sport a few times and then qualifies for the Olympics. Years of preparation and training are absolutely essential. But even then, a few of the athletes still fail miserably or are disqualified when their big event takes place. That’s always sad to watch.
A much bigger event than the Olympics is coming, and you will be enrolled as a participant. That event is the second coming of Jesus Christ in power and glory. It will be the most amazing event ever to shake the entire world. Listen to how Jesus described it (Luke 21:25-28):
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
The question is, “Are you ready for the big event?” You may think, “I’ve trusted in Jesus Christ as my Savior, so I’m ready.” In one sense, that is true. But the Bible teaches that even as believers, we should be prepared for His return. Jesus concluded His Olivet Discourse with these warnings to the disciples (Mark 13:33-37):
“Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert. Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—in case he should come suddenly and find you asleep. What I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!’”
The apostle John heard Jesus speak those words. John has warned us that we are in the last hour, with many deceivers trying to lead us astray from the truth. With this danger in mind, he has given us three tests by which we can detect such false teachers, and also test our own faith: (1) the moral test of obedience to Jesus Christ (2:3-6); (2) the relational test of love for the brethren (2:7-11); and, (3) the doctrinal test of believing the truth about Jesus Christ (2:18-27). Now John begins a second application of the tests: (1) the moral test (2:28-3:10); (2) the relational test (
To be ready for Christ’s coming, abide in Him as little children.
John makes three simple, but important, points:
“When He appears” in Greek is literally, “if He appears.” But the uncertainty is not about the fact of His coming, but rather about the time of it. The fact that He is coming again bodily is either true or the Bible is false. But we do not know when He will return. James Boice writes (The Epistles of John [Zondervan], p. 96) that in the New Testament, “… one verse in twenty-five deals with the Lord’s return. It is mentioned 318 times in the 260 chapters of the New Testament. It is mentioned in every one of the New Testament books, with the exception of Galatians, which deals with a particular doctrinal problem, and the very short books such as 2 and 3 John and Philemon.” Jesus repeatedly mentioned His own return. On the night before His crucifixion, He promised the anxious disciples (John 14:1-3),
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”
When the disciples watched the risen Jesus ascend bodily into heaven, two angels appeared and said (Acts 1:11), “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” He will come bodily.
Believers disagree a lot about the details of prophecy, such as the millennium and the rapture. There are obviously good reasons for each view or else everyone who holds to the authority of the Bible would agree. But there is one thing every true believer, no matter what his prophetic views, holds as absolutely true: Jesus Christ is coming back bodily as the conquering Judge and King.
John indicates that there are two possibilities when Jesus Christ comes: either you will have confidence or you will “shrink away from Him in shame.” But, is John referring to believers who will be ashamed at the Lord’s coming, or to the heretics and those who have followed them in their denial of the deity of Jesus Christ?
It seems to me that the primary reference in the context is to the heretics and their followers. For a while, they professed to know Jesus Christ, but they turned away, showing that their faith was not genuine, saving faith (2:19). They have denied Him His rightful place as the Sovereign Lord and have turned, instead, to foolish speculations that puff them up with pride in their supposed knowledge. Because by their denial of Christ, they were ashamed of Him, when He comes He will be ashamed of them (Mark 8:38). They will shrink back in fear and shame when they see Him in His glory (Matt. 22:11-13; Rev. 6:15-17).
But, there may be a secondary sense, momentary in duration, in which even true believers could be ashamed when He comes. Some have worked for Christ out of selfish, prideful motives. They will be saved, but as through fire when their works are burned up (1 Cor. 3:12-15). Surely, they must feel a sense of shame over their sin, even though they quickly will be transformed into Christ’s image and enter heaven in their perfect resurrection bodies (1 John 3:2; 1 Cor. 15:50-53). Even we who have conscientiously served Christ are painfully aware of our many shortcomings and failures. We may have a brief moment of shame or regret when we see Him and think, “If only I had done more for Him!”
But, for those who abide in Christ, the dominant mood will be confidence when He comes. The Greek word means, “courage, confidence, boldness, fearlessness, especially in the presence of persons of high rank” (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Bauer, Arndt, & Gingrich [University of Chicago Press], second ed., p. 630). The word used for “coming” (2:28) was used of the visit of a king or emperor. If you’ve ever had to go before a high-ranking official, you’ve probably felt a bit nervous. Even John, when he saw Jesus in His glory, “fell at His feet like a dead man” (Rev. 1:17). But here John says, “we may have confidence … at His coming.” How can this be? John gives a simple answer:
The command is simple:
“Abide” is one of John’s favorite words. He uses it more than all other New Testament writers combined—24 times in 1 John. In the Upper Room, Jesus used it 11 times (in John 15:4-16). It is used both of God’s abiding in us and our abiding in Him (see 2:27; 3:24; 4:15). There is a sense in which every true believer abides (remains) in Christ, but the fact that we are commanded to abide in Him implies persistent and purposeful action on our part (Robert Law, The Tests of Life [Baker], pp. 199-200). Note five things about what it means to abide in Him:
Believers are never commanded to be in Christ, because that is a fact, but we are commanded to abide in Him. When you trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, you are placed in Him. Paul uses this phrase often to describe our permanent position of identification with Christ and all of the blessings that He bestows on us by His grace (Eph. 1:3). This position of being in Christ comes to us through the new birth, when we are born into God’s family. If you wonder how you can know if you’ve been born again, look for signs of new life. Have you truly trusted and are you now trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation? Have you repented and are you now repenting of your sins? Do you love God and the things of God? These and many more are signs that you have been born again. If you have been born again, you are in Christ.
There is a popular teaching that if you are abiding, you are not striving or exerting any effort. You are simply resting in all that Jesus is for you, as the branch abides passively in the vine. That’s half of the truth, but not all of it (for a more complete discussion of this see James Rosscup, Abiding in Christ [Zondervan], pp. 146-170). There is the passive sense in which we rest or trust in Christ as our life and strength. We will accomplish nothing of value for God unless we abide in Christ in that sense (John 15:5). But at the same time, we are commanded to abide in Him, which implies that we must be active. The active side involves the three tests: obeying His commands (1 John 2:6; 3:24), loving the brethren (2:10; 4:16), and holding tenaciously to the truth of the gospel (2:24; 4:15).
Verse 29 (in context) explains how not to be ashamed at Christ’s coming, namely, to live righteously (it also anticipates the theme of 3:4-10). When John says, “If you know that He is righteous,” “if” has the sense of “since.” “He” could refer to Jesus Christ the righteous (2:2), who is the subject of verse 28. But since the Bible normally talks about the Father as the one who begets us as His children, the “He” and “Him” of verse 28 probably look ahead to the Father (3:1). Note also that His righteousness (2:29) is perfectly compatible with His great love (3:1). We fall into error if we do not hold to both.
Don’t mistake the point of verse 29. It is not saying that righteous behavior is the cause or condition of the new birth, but just the opposite. The verb is literally, “has been born of Him” (Greek perfect tense). The meaning is that a righteous life is evidence of the new birth. Like begets like. A child will be like his parents, because he shares their nature. Because God is righteous, those truly born of Him will be righteous in the overall pattern of their lives. When we are born of Him, He grants to us “everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3; see, also, Eph. 4:24). That new life in us produces godliness, or righteous living (1 John 3:9).
Living righteously is a lifelong process of growth in obedience to God’s Word. It does not happen instantly or without setbacks and struggles. But if you are born again, you will be learning to judge every thought, motive, and attitude by God’s Word. You will seek to please the Lord, beginning on the thought level (Matt. 5:27-30; Mark 7:20-23). The fruit of the Holy Spirit will be growing in your character (Gal. 5:22-23). You will be disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Of course, all of this is done in dependence on the Holy Spirit, but you must be involved actively in the process (Phil. 2:12-13; Gal. 5:16).
We focused on this last week (2:24, “what you heard from the beginning”), and so I only mention it in passing. In a day when there are many pressures to compromise the gospel in order to display love and unity, we must stand firm. If you do not hold tenaciously to the truth, you are not abiding in Christ, who is the truth.
We looked at this in 2:15-17, where John draws the line between love for the world and love for the Father. In contrast to this fleeting world, the one who does the will of God abides forever. If you are more comfortable watching TV or godless movies and hanging out with worldly people to join them in their vain entertainment than you are spending time with the Lord and His people, then you are not abiding in Him. If you have secret areas of your life where you block God out, you are not abiding in Him. To abide in Him means that you are at home with Him and He is at home with you. You feel increasingly like an alien or foreigner to this evil world: “For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him” (3:1).
Much more could be said, but notice, also, how John again addresses his flock as “little children.” The implication is:
We live in a day when pastors are told that they lack the professional expertise to help people with their “deep” problems. In seminary, you are told that you need to refer these difficult cases to the trained professionals. The not-so-subtle implication is that the Bible does not have answers for the tough problems that people face. For solutions there, we have to turn to worldly psychology.
I recognize that if there are biochemical imbalances or if drugs are involved, things get complicated to sort out. I also realize that some problems are not easy to overcome. Yet at the same time, the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes and the Holy Spirit in the believer is quite capable of producing His fruit, which describes an emotionally and relationally whole person. If the promises of God’s Word do not apply to the difficult problems of life, then they really aren’t much good. John’s words, “little children, abide in Him,” suggest at least four simple truths:
“Little children” implies that abiding in Christ is simple, not something that you need a graduate degree to understand or practice. In fact, Jesus said (Matt. 18:3), “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” I have seen a bumper sticker that reads, “Simplify.” That’s not bad advice in all areas of life, but it is especially appropriate for your walk with the Lord. Ask yourself these basic questions:
Do I spend consistent, regular time alone with the Lord in the Word?
Am I trusting God by drawing near in prayer to His throne of grace in all of my trials?
Do I memorize and meditate on God’s Word, applying it to my life?
Am I faithful as a steward of all that God has entrusted to me, maintaining integrity and putting off greed?
Am I growing in holiness, developing the fruit of the Spirit by walking in the Spirit?
Am I judging, confessing, and forsaking sin, beginning on the thought level?
Am I working at maintaining and deepening the relationships with those in my life, especially in my immediate family? This includes truthful, loving communication; listening; kindness; patience; forgiveness; and, humility.
This isn’t rocket science! It is basic Christian living and those who have applied these things have endured terrible suffering and even martyrdom with God’s joy. Invariably, when people have serious personal or family problems, they are failing at these and other basics of the Christian life.
Little children depend on their parents for everything. Their parents must protect them and provide for them. They would not survive for a day if their parents abandoned them to the elements. If you are abiding in the Father as a little child, you depend on Him for provision, life, and power. You take every need to Him in prayer and draw near to Him as your loving, caring Father.
When trials come into your life, you must actively draw near to the Lord and depend on Him as you have never had to do at other times. If you do not actively do this, you will become angry and bitter at God and drift away from Him. This is why Peter writes to suffering believers (1 Pet. 5:7-11):
Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.
You must humble yourself as a child (Matt. 18:4). Children are not strong in themselves, but only in their protector. They run to their parents for refuge. You are weak, but your heavenly Father is strong. It is only when we’re aware of our own weakness that we rely on Him for our strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10). We can see an example of this in our text, in the little word “we” (2:28). In the flow of the sentence, you would expect, “you,” not “we.” But John includes himself with these little children. Even though he was an aged apostle, even though he had been with the Lord, he recognized his need to abide in Him as a little child.
This is implicit in the relationship between a father and his children. Every father loves his children with a special love. John will state this explicitly in 3:1-2, and we need to wait until our study of those verses to comment more. But for now, note that if you know and revel in the Father’s great love, abiding in Him will not be a difficult chore, but a great delight.
So, are you ready for the biggest, most amazing event in world history—the return of Jesus Christ? The answer to that question depends on your answer to another question: Are you abiding in Him as a little child?
If not, why not begin today? Get alone with the Lord and your Bible. Confess all known sin to Him. Mourn over your coldness toward the Father’s love and toward the Lord Jesus, who gave Himself for you on the cross. Accept His gracious forgiveness. Go over the questions that I mentioned earlier and prioritize where you need to begin. Change your daily schedule so that you can begin to implement these basics of abiding in Christ. As you do, you will grow in confidence as you anticipate His coming.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Love is one of the greatest motivators in the world. When someone loves you, it gives you hope and strength. When you feel unloved or rejected by someone you love, it can be devastating.
George Matheson was a 19th century Scottish pastor. He was born with an eye defect that left him totally blind by age 18. Shortly after this, his fiancée left him, deciding she would not be content to be married to a blind preacher. Years later, at age 40, Matheson was alone on the night of his sister’s wedding. Something happened, perhaps the memory of being rejected by his own fiancée years before, that caused him severe mental suffering. Suddenly, the words of a hymn came to him as if dictated by some inward voice. The whole thing was done in five minutes and he never had to edit or correct it (from Kenneth Osbeck, Amazing Grace [Kregel], p. 49). The first verse is:
O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe
That in Thine ocean-depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
The third verse reflects Matheson’s experience of God’s love through suffering:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thro’ the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
In his blindness and loneliness, perhaps feeling forsaken by the love of a woman, Matheson sought and found comfort in the unchanging love of God (this story is also in, John MacArthur, The Love of God [Word], p. 151).
Although human love is wonderful, God’s love is far greater. It is the most life-changing force in the universe. The apostle Paul prayed for the Ephesians (3:17b-19), “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”
My task is to speak about this unfathomable love of God in Christ. To the extent that God opens our eyes to see it, we will be changed people.
The apostle John has just said (2:29), “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.” The thought that we have been born of God causes John to exclaim (3:1), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” His point is simple and powerful:
The Father’s great love has made us His children and it distinguishes us from the world.
The apostle John had been blessed more than most men in the history of the world. Many prophets had desired to see what John had seen and to hear what he had heard (Matt. 13:16-17). He had spent three years as one of the closest disciples of Jesus Christ. He had heard Jesus’ profound teaching. He had seen Jesus perform dozens of powerful miracles. He had seen Jesus transfigured in His glory. He had witnessed Jesus alive from the dead and stood transfixed as He ascended bodily into heaven.
Here he is as an old man. We ask, “John, as you think back over your illustrious life, what stands out? What motivates you and gives you hope?” He replies (3:1), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.” His words show us that…
“See” is often translated, “behold.” It is both an exclamation and a command. As an exclamation, it shows that the Father’s great love should amaze us. Some things grow commonplace over time. We’ve heard about them and known them for years. Maybe at first, when it was new, an idea or experience affected us. But over the years, the effect grows weaker and weaker, until finally it’s just a far-distant memory.
But the Father’s great love for us is the kind of experience that should grow stronger and stronger over the years, until it totally dominates every aspect of our lives. It should consume our thoughts and control our behavior. It should motivate us to serve God and to live holy lives. It should give us comfort in all our trials. It should fill us with the eager hope of being with Him in heaven. It should fill us with awe and worship, that He, the holy sovereign of the universe, would set His love on a sinful, self-willed rebel like me! “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, should die for me!” Don’t let yourself ever hear of the Father’s great love and think, “Ho hum!” It ought always to amaze you.
But, also, behold is a command. This shows that the Father’s great love should instruct us. The command is, “Stop everything else! Look at this Think about it! Ponder the significance of it!” The word translated, “how great” is, literally, “what kind.” It originally meant, “of what country,” and always implies astonishment (John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 118). It’s as if John thinks about the Father’s great love and says, “Where does this come from? It must be from heaven, because there’s nothing like it in this world!”
Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on 1 John, pp. 298-299) points out that a habit of devout, thankful meditation on God’s great love as seen in the sacrifice of His Son for us, along with the humble, thankful conviction that I am a child of God because of it, lies at the foundation of all vigorous, happy Christian living. He uses the illustration that if you had a friend in Australia, but you never thought about this friend and never communicated with him, that friendship would fade and not have much significance in your life. For the friendship to affect you, you must think often about this friend and what he means to you.
Maclaren also points out that such thought always requires great effort. We all have too many other things crowding into our daily lives. If we do not deliberately take the time and effort to block out all of these pressing things and to focus on what God has done for us in Christ, His great love will get crowded out of our thoughts and daily lives.
The Father’s great love also should instruct us about our relationships with one another. This is the apostle Paul’s thought in Ephesians 5:1-2, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.” Imitate God by walking in love, with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as your great example! If you need more specifics about what walking in love really looks like, go to Paul’s great chapter on love (1 Cor. 13:4-8a). He writes,
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails….
Can you substitute your name in place of “love”? (“Steve is patient,” etc.) Those qualities should increasingly describe your relationships with others, beginning with those that you live with.
We’re all prone to excuse our lack of love by blaming those that we are supposed to love. We say, “I am usually a very loving person, but if you knew how unloving my husband is, you’d understand why I treat him as I do.” Or, “I work long hours to provide for my wife, but all she does is gripe and criticize me. Sure, I’m mean and angry sometimes, but who wouldn’t be?”
But such excuses don’t hold up because such unloving behavior does not in any way resemble God’s great love for you. Where would you be if God made up excuses for why He should withhold His love from you? He doesn’t need to make up excuses—He has legitimate reasons why you do not deserve His love! He would have been completely justified to leave you in your sins, with no remedy. But, instead, He so loved you that He sent His only begotten Son to bear the penalty that you justly deserved. Now He says, “Imitate My love by loving those who are insensitive, mean, and unloving toward you.”
John’s words here also apply to how we as earthly fathers relate to our children. All of biblical parenting can be summed up in one sentence: Love your children as the heavenly Father loves you. Such love involves proper correction and discipline, of course. But, I think that most Christian parents fall short primarily in the realm of love, not discipline. God lavished His love and grace on us in Jesus Christ. As Christian parents—especially as fathers—we need to lavish grace and love on our children. It will motivate them to follow Christ far more than strict rules ever will. I’m not saying that there is no need for rules. I am saying that if your children feel your love for them, the need for rules is greatly diminished.
So John shows us that the Father’s great love should both amaze and instruct us. Stop and behold it often!
The word “bestowed” is, literally, “given.” It points to the fact that God’s love is not earned or deserved. Rather, it is purely a gift that comes from His undeserved favor, or grace. Paul emphasizes this in Romans 5. First he says (5:6), “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” In 5:8, he adds, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In 5:10, he states that “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son….” Add up the terms: we were helpless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. His great love is demonstrated in that He sent His Son to die for us while we were in such an awful condition!
Paul says a similar thing in Ephesians 2:4-7:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
God is under no obligation to save us. He could have left us, as He left the fallen angels, with no way of salvation. He justly condemned them to the eternal fire without any chance to repent and be saved. But, instead, He set His great love on us to raise us from spiritual death to life, and even more than that, to make us His beloved children through the new birth! Paul ends that great chapter, Romans 8, with these triumphant words (8:38-39):
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The fact that God’s great love is a gift means that you cannot do anything to earn it or deserve it. All you can do is receive it. You cannot vow to pay it back, because the cost is infinite and because God will not be anyone’s debtor. This means that your pride is one of the biggest factors that will prevent you from receiving and experiencing God’s love in Christ. But if you will acknowledge that you are a sinner and that you cannot do anything to deserve or earn God’s love, the gift is there for the taking, no matter how badly you have sinned. All that you can do is to receive God’s gift of eternal life by faith and bow in wonder, thanks, and love in response. The Father offers such great love to all who will receive it.
Because God has bestowed His great love on us, we are now called children of God. John adds, “and such we are” (the KJV and New KJV omit these words, but there is solid manuscript support for them). The idea is that we not only have the name or title, “children of God,” but that that title reflects our true condition. Through His power, God causes us to be born again through His Holy Spirit (see John 3:1-8; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:3; 1 John 2:29; 3:9, 10; 5:1, 18). He imparts new life to us, so that we are raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. We actually become partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4), although we never become “gods” in any sense. But, we share His very life.
This means that becoming a Christian is not a matter of human willpower, but rather of God’s power. In John 1:12-13 we read, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Those who receive Jesus Christ do not do so because of their will, but because God by His sovereign will causes them to be born again. This takes away all ground for boasting and leaves us bowing in adoration and awe, that the Father would bestow His great love on us apart from anything in us.
The fact that God’s love has made us His children should also cause us to feel His love and to love Him in return, even (or, especially) in all of the trials that we encounter. I have told you before that I never appreciated how much my dad loves me until I held my firstborn in my arms. As I gazed at her, helpless and dependent and so beautifully formed by God, it hit me: “My dad loves me as much as I love her! And, what is even greater, God loves me far more than this!” As we already read from Romans 8, there is no trial on this earth, and not even death itself, that can separate us from His great love!
Perhaps at times you have wished that you had been born into a family with great wealth. But the truth is, such families are often lacking in love. It is a far greater privilege to be born into God’s family as His dear child. All the riches of Christ are yours for time and eternity! John adds another thought:
The great tragedy of those in this world is that they do not know God. In John 1:11 we read, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” John undoubtedly has that verse in mind at the end of 1 John 3:1, where he writes, “For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.” Jesus warned His disciples that they would suffer persecution, especially from the religious crowd. Then He added (John 16:3), “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.” (See also, 1 Cor. 1:21.)
Believing in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord distinguishes us from the world. One of the distinguishing marks of God’s children is that they know Him. Jesus said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” In 1 John 3:10, he divides the world into two opposite camps: the children of God and the children of the devil. If you have experienced God’s great love as shown at the cross of Jesus Christ, you are a child of God and know Him. If you have not trusted in Jesus Christ, you are a child of the devil and do not know God. There is no third camp.
Because of this divide, if you know God’s love in Jesus Christ, you are an alien in this evil world that has rejected Christ. You should feel like an alien when you are in the company of the world, or when you encounter the world’s godless entertainment. You should not expect to be popular in the world’s eyes. You should not seek to gain the world’s approval; to the contrary, you should fear it (Luke 6:27). When you go into the world, you should not go to join them in their dissipation (1 Pet. 4:3-4). Rather, go as Jesus did, to seek and to save the lost. He attended the gatherings of sinners, but not to join them in their frivolous revelry. He went as the Great Physician, to heal their terminally ill souls (Luke 5:29-32).
Can you honestly say, “The world does not know me”? Can you truly say, “I am a stranger to this world”? If you cannot answer those questions affirmatively, you’d better examine how well you know and experience the Father’s great love. If you know His love and you are His child, you will be distinguished from this evil world that rejects His love. As the hymn writer put it, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace” (Helen Lemmel, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”).
Several years ago, John MacArthur had the opportunity to spend several days traveling with the well-known gospel musicians, Bill and Gloria Gaither. At one point, he asked Bill what, in his estimation, were the greatest Christian lyrics ever written, aside from the inspired Psalms. Without hesitation, Gaither began quoting the words from F. M. Lehman’s “The Love of God”:
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
Gaither said that no lyrics in all hymnody surpass the third stanza of that song (MacArthur, The Love of God, pp. xi, xii). That third stanza, by the way, was part of an ancient lengthy poem composed in Arabic in 1096 by a Jewish songwriter, Rabbi Mayer, in Germany. The lines were found in revised form on the walls of a patient’s room in an insane asylum after his death. The author of the hymn heard these words cited at a camp meeting, where he wrote them down. God later gave him the words for the first two stanzas and the chorus, which his daughter put to music (Osbeck, Amazing Grace, p. 47).
If you know God through faith in Jesus Christ, pause often to revel in the Father’s great love that made you His child. If you do not know God, His great love calls you even now to the cross, where Jesus Christ shed His blood to pay the penalty for all that will believe in Him.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
The evangelical church in America desperately needs holiness. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience ([Baker], pp. 12-13), Ron Sider writes,
Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most “Christians” regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.
The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and the Barna Group are simply shocking. “Gallup and Barna,” laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, “hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.” Divorce is more common among “born-again” Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers.
It is also odd to me that American Christians are enamored with biblical prophecy, yet they ignore the application of prophetic truth to their daily lives. Several decades ago, the best-selling evangelical author of prophecy books left his wife and moved in with his girl friend, whom he subsequently married. The church that he was attending disciplined him, but he just shrugged it off and started his own church. He has continued to write best sellers and to appear on the Christian TV talk show circuit.
Our text confronts head on this deadly disease of the modern church. John shows that if you understand biblical prophecy rightly, you will purify yourself from sin. He does not say that you ought to purify yourself, but rather, you will do it. The true hope of Christ’s coming is a purifying hope. John says that…
Understanding our present position as children of God and our future hope of being like Jesus when He comes will motivate us to grow in holiness now.
These verses are closely connected with verse 1, which we studied last week. The Father’s great love for us as His children is probably the strongest motivation for holy living. When you contemplate the staggering truth that God gave His own Son on the cross to forgive all of your sins and to make you His own child, it should compel you to be distinct from the world and to grow in holiness. John continues that theme by addressing his readers as “beloved.” They are beloved by God and also by the aged apostle. He reminds us, again, that…
John has just said in verse 1 that we are actually the children of God. Why does he repeat it again in verse 2? Because he wants to hammer this essential truth home and clinch it in our minds. He says, “now”—right now in the present, “we are children of God.” That is our current position, and it ought to dominate every aspect of our daily lives.
For better or worse, the families into which we are born have a huge impact on how we grow up and live. Some grow up in unloving, abusive homes where anger flares up every day. The TV spews moral filth into the living room every evening, while the family wallows in it, laughing at the shameful antics. The Bible is never read, family prayer times are non-existent, and moral training, if it exists at all, consists of, “Make sure that you have safe sex.” A child growing up in that kind of home is bound to be damaged by it, unless the grace of God through the gospel lays hold of him.
Other children grow up in godly homes, where love and kindness are the daily fare. The husband treats his wife with gentleness and respect, and the wife submits to and speaks well of her husband. The children are instructed in the ways of the Lord and they see it modeled in front of them every day. The family often reads the Bible and prays together. They worship with God’s people on Sundays. Growing up in that kind of home will have a far different impact on the children. Their position as children in that kind of home greatly affects how they think and live.
Perhaps you lament that you did not enjoy such a godly upbringing. But, if you have been born again by the Holy Spirit, you now are in such a godly family—the family of God. You can rightly call the holy, almighty God, “Father.” You are His beloved child, more precious to Him than any child is to his earthly father. As a child of God, you are an heir to a vast fortune. Paul puts it this way (Rom. 8:16-17), “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” That new position of being a child of God in the family of God should shape how you think, how you live, and how you relate to the many temptations in this evil world.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes (Children of God [Crossway], p. 23), “I do feel that this is perhaps the greatest weakness of all in the Christian church, that we fail to realise what we are, or who we are.” He goes on to say that most of our unhappiness is due to our failure to relate our trials to our glorious position as children of God. He adds (p. 24), “If only we realised who we are, then the problem of conduct would almost automatically be solved…. The more I read the New Testament, the more I am impressed by the fact that every appeal for conduct and good living and behaviour is always made in terms of our position.” Godly conduct rests on our understanding of our true, great position as children of God.
If you begin to see this truth and allow it to shape your identity, it works out like this: You are tempted to engage in some sin or to join the world in some degrading form of entertainment. But you think, “I can’t do that because I’m a child of God and it would disgrace the name of my heavenly Father.” Or, you’re reading the Bible and it convicts you that some of your behavior is not godly. It may be lustful thoughts or a grumbling, ungrateful attitude or words that put down others. Perhaps you frequently bend the truth to cover up your own misdeeds. But when Scripture confronts you, you think, “I’m now a child of God. I can’t do that as a member of His family.” Your new identity motivates you to grow in holiness. John begins with the foundation of our present position.
Note three things:
John adds (3:2), “and it has not appeared as yet what we will be.” He seems to mean two things. First, since he immediately adds that when Jesus appears, we will be like Him, he means that presently we are not like Him. Our future state of glorified perfection, where we will be free from all the impurity of sin, is not a present reality. Right now, we live in the flesh. We are not and never will be perfectly sanctified in this life. Thus we need to grow in purity, as he goes on to say (3:3).
Also, John may be acknowledging that the fullness of our future state of glorification has not been completely revealed. “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Or, as Paul puts it (Col. 3:3-4), “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” But even though we cannot fathom everything that we will be in heaven, we can trust God that it will be far better than anything we can imagine. Our future hope of being totally conformed to the image of Jesus Christ should motivate us to holiness now.
As I understand it, John is saying that the instant that we see Jesus, we will become like Him. At the moment He comes, we will be totally sanctified in body, soul, and spirit. Of course, this only applies to those who are His children in this life. Unbelievers will see Jesus just as He is, but that sight will not transform them into His likeness. Rather, they will shrink away in shame and terror from His absolute holiness and the splendor of His glory (1 John 2:28). As John describes it in Revelation (6:16), they will call out “to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
The apostle John had seen the earthly Jesus with his own eyes (1 John 1:1). Believers have seen Him with eyes of faith (1 Pet. 1:8). Unbelievers, who live in sin, have not seen Him or known Him (1 John 3:6). But, when He comes again in power and glory, “every eye will see Him” (Rev. 1:7). At that glorious moment, all that believe in Jesus Christ in this life will be transformed completely into His image and be with Him for all eternity! Even though we may not know in great detail what awaits us in heaven, we can rest in this hopeful promise: we will see Him and be like Him and be with Him forever!
John says, “We know….” It is not, “we speculate,” or, “the best forecasts indicate….” It is, “We know!” Biblical hope is not a good guess about the future. It is not, “There is a 50 percent chance that this will happen.” It is 100 percent certain because it is based on the sure promises of God and on the testimony of His Son as relayed to us by the apostles in the New Testament. As Francis Schaeffer so helpfully pointed out, one of the errors of our times is to relegate faith to the “upper story,” rather than to recognize that the Christian faith is rooted in true historical facts. In other words, the modern way of thinking is, “Your faith is your own subjective reality. It may be true for you personally, but it is not absolutely true for everyone.”
But, the Bible is clear that God’s truth about Jesus Christ is what Schaeffer called “true truth.” It is supremely revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all of which are historically validated. He fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah. His word about the future is not uncertain speculation. It is absolutely certain, but just not yet realized. We know certainly that He will appear and in that instant, we will be instantly transformed.
This instantaneous transformation will include our bodies. In the great chapter on the resurrection, Paul says (1 Cor. 15:50-53):
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul refers to this same truth:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
Since sin now dwells in our earthly bodies (Rom. 7:18, 23, 24; 8:10, 13), we have to do battle against it until we die or Jesus returns. But when He returns, instantly we will receive our new resurrection bodies. At that moment, we will be freed from all sin.
Thus John has shown us our present position as children of God and our future hope, that when Jesus comes, we will be like Him. In verse 3, he applies it:
As I said, verse 3 does not say that if we have our hope fixed on Christ, we ought to purify ourselves. Rather, it says that everyone who has this hope fixed on Him does purify himself. In other words, the test of whether or not you truly understand the teaching of verse 2 will be evident in your practicing the truth of verse 3. If you understand that you are presently a child of God and that when Jesus comes, you will be like Him, then you will be progressively purifying your life, just as Jesus is pure. Note three things:
Although the word hope is frequent in Paul and in Peter’s writings, this is the only time that John uses the noun. Oddly, it does not even occur in Revelation. As believers, our hope is not in circumstances or in some optimistic wish for a better tomorrow. Our hope is in the person of Jesus Christ. He said that He was returning to heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:2). Then He added these wonderful words of hope (14:3), “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” He didn’t leave us forever! He’s coming back for us, and when that happens, we will go to be with Him in the place that He has prepared for us! All of our hope should be fixed on Him.
Hope is one of the three cardinal virtues that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13:13, faith, hope, and love. Christians should be people of hope, because we fix our hope on Jesus, who never disappoints. Depression is one of the most common psychological maladies of our day. I realize that there are complex factors involved in depression, some of them physiological. So I don’t mean to be overly simplistic here. If you are a Christian who struggles with depression, get a medical checkup.
But before you start popping Prozac, do a study of what the Bible says about hope. Depressed people lack hope, but God promises hope to His people. Memorize some verses on hope, such as Romans 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Our God is the God of hope, and the hope that He gives centers on the Lord Jesus Christ.
The holiness of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ is a frequent theme in 1 John. In 1:5, he told us, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” In 2:1, he refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ the righteous.” In 2:20, he refers to Jesus as “the Holy One.” In 2:29, he again affirms that “He is righteous.” Here, he says, “He is pure.” The word originally referred to ceremonial purity, but it came to mean that which is “pure in the highest sense” (R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [Eerdmans], p. 333). It refers to freedom from all defilement of sin, especially moral sin.
As we’ve seen, in that glorious future day when we see Jesus, that vision will transform us. But I also believe that to the extent that we presently see Jesus in His holiness with the eyes of faith, to that same extent He will transform us into His glory. Paul says essentially the same thing (2 Cor. 3:18), “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”
There is a similar thought in John 14:21, where Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” If we want Jesus to disclose or reveal Himself to us, we must obey Him. It becomes, not a vicious cycle, but a victorious cycle, where when we obey, we see more of Jesus; this in turn makes us more like Him, which means that we see even more of Him. There is a transformational power in seeing Jesus for who He is, the Holy One. Of course, our only source for this knowledge is His Word.
Thus we must fix our hope on Him and we must come to know Him in His holiness.
John says (3:3), “Everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself.” We need to maintain the biblical balance here. In Romans 8:29, Paul says that God has predestined us to become conformed to the image of His Son. In that sense, it’s a done deal and clearly, God does it. Yet at the same time, John says that we must purify ourselves. Paul says (2 Cor. 7:1), “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” He commands Timothy to keep himself pure [lit.] from sin (1 Tim. 5:22). James 4:8 commands, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” 1 Peter 1:22 says that believers have purified their souls. So, there is a definite sense in which we must be active in the process of purification from sin.
The other side is that only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us (1 John 1:7, 9). We are clean through the washing of water with the Word (Eph. 5:26). So God’s Word and His Holy Spirit are like the soap and water. But we’ve got to apply it to the dirt of our sin. The Word is also like a mirror, revealing to us the dirt on our faces. When it does that, rather than ignoring it, we must confess our sins to the Lord, apply His shed blood as our source of cleansing, and take the necessary steps to avoid that sin in the future. In brief, if you can’t imagine Jesus Christ, the righteous one, doing something, then you shouldn’t do it either. Clean the filth out of your life, beginning on the thought level.
Maybe you’re thinking, “But it’s hard to let go of my sins!” If we’re honest, we sin because we enjoy sinning, at least for the moment. We don’t consider the long-term consequences. So we need motivation for purity. John says that our motivation should be that we are God’s beloved children and that Jesus is coming to make us pure. These facts should motivate us to purify our lives now.
When Jimmy Carter was President, to promote his populist image, on several occasions he spent the night in the homes of common people. Of course, he didn’t drop in unannounced! Those people had fair warning that he was coming on a particular date, and I’m sure that they had to agree to the visit. But, if you knew that the President would come at some unknown date to stay in your home, and that the news cameras would be there to broadcast the state of your living room to the entire world, I’ll bet that you’d be motivated to clean house!
Jesus is coming. When you see Him in His glory, you will be like Him. If you have your hope fixed on Him, you’ll start cleaning house now! You don’t want the Lord who is pure to come to a filthy house!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
As I said last week, polls consistently indicate that there is virtually no difference in America between those who claim to be born again Christians and the population at large when it comes to sexual morality, materialism, hedonism, and worldview. Those claiming to be Christians think and act just as the world does. We may claim to believe in Jesus and the Bible, but our lives don’t back up the claims.
First John is a much-needed antidote to this current form of Christianity. In combating certain heretics who had left the church and who were recruiting others to join them, John gives three tests of authentic Christianity: the moral test (obedience to Christ); the relational test (love for others); and, the doctrinal test (believing the truth about Christ). From 2:28-3:10, John gives the second application of the moral test. He makes it clear that a righteous life is a distinguishing mark of one that truly has been born of God. John’s overall theme in 3:4-10 is:
Because sin is serious and it is opposed to the reasons why Christ came, Christians do not and cannot live in sin.
Verses 4-10 fall into two sections: 3:4-7 is parallel to 3:8-10 (adapted from John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 121).
3:4: Sin is serious because it is rebellion against God.
3:8a: Sin is serious because it originates with the devil.
3:5: Sin is opposed to Christ’s appearing to take away sins.
3:8b: Sin is opposed to Christ’s appearing to destroy the works of the devil.
3:6: A true Christian does not live in sin.
3:9: A true Christian cannot live in sin.
3:7: A true Christian practices righteousness.
3:10: A true Christian practices righteousness and love.
There is a lot of material here, but I want to cover it in one message because of this structural unity.
Many scholars say that the Greek word translated “lawlessness” has a much wider range of meaning than that in the Greek Old Testament (LXX). Thus John may not have in mind so much the specific breaking of God’s law, but rather, he is saying that the one who practices sin is “in revolt against God” and that “sin is nothing but rebellion against God” (W. Gutbrod, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Eerdmans], IV:1086). In other words, John is hitting at the truth that sin, at its core, is much worse than an outward breaking of a commandment. To practice sin is to be in open rebellion against God Himself.
We may ask, “Why does John begin here with this?” The answer is, as J. C. Ryle points out (Holiness [James Clarke & Co.], p. 1), “that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity…. If a man does not realize the dangerous nature of his soul’s disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies.”
If you do not have a biblical view of the seriousness of sin, then you do not need anything nearly as radical as a Savior who “appeared in order to take away sins” (3:5). If our need is just for a few tips on how to have a happier life or improve our self esteem, then why all this extreme talk about Christ shedding His blood as the propitiation for our sins (1:7; 2:1)?
The false teachers that John was confronting were no doubt, as many false teachers in our day, minimizing the serious nature of sin. Satan’s strategy has always been to get rebellious man to think more highly of himself than he ought to think: “I may not be perfect, but I’m not a wretched sinner! I’m not a worm!”
At the same time, Satan gets us to pull God down from His absolute holiness: “Surely, a loving God understands that I’m only human. He wouldn’t send someone as good as me to hell! He wouldn’t demand perfect righteousness, would He?” The conclusion is, if God is not so holy and I’m not so sinful, then I don’t need anything as radical as the shed blood of a sinless substitute to atone for my “faults”! Thus Satan works to undermine the cross.
John’s readers knew this, but he reminds them of it again. Jesus Christ appeared to take away sins. This is the same verb as when John the Baptist saw Jesus and proclaimed (John 1:29), “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” In 2:28 & 3:2, John used the word “appears” to refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Here, he uses it twice (3:5, 8) to refer to His first coming. Jesus Christ did not come to this earth primarily to give us moral teaching or an example, although He did those things. His main reason for coming was to take away sins by bearing the penalty that we deserved in His own body on the cross.
The only way that He could do this was to be completely sinless Himself. Thus John adds, “and in Him there is no sin.” Jesus’ virgin birth through the Holy Spirit preserved Him from original sin (Luke 1:35). He lived in complete obedience to God, so that even His enemies could not convict Him of sin (John 8:46). He offered Himself as a lamb unblemished and spotless (1 Pet. 1:19), the final and complete sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 10:10, 14, 18). If you know these truths, then John’s conclusion is inescapable:
“Abides” is John’s word for fellowship, but we need to understand that in his mind, every Christian abides in Christ. The idea that there are two types of Christians, those who abide in Him and do not sin, and those who do not abide and do sin, was foreign to the apostle’s thinking. The word abide in 3:6 is parallel to is born of God in 3:9.
This is further evident by the fact that John adds (3:6), “no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.” The false teachers claimed to have special revelation or knowledge of Christ. John says that their sinful lives betrayed them. His point is that anyone that knows Jesus Christ as the holy, sinless Savior, who came to offer Himself on the cross to forgive our sins, does not live in sin. If someone lives in sin, it shows that he has not seen Jesus as He revealed Himself, and does not know Him as Savior. Then John draws an application for his “little children”:
Whenever the Bible warns us not to be deceived, we need to perk up and pay attention. Deception is like a fisherman’s bait: we think we’re going to get what we want (a juicy meal), but we end up getting hooked and becoming the meal! John plainly spells out the truth: “the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” John Stott observes (p. 124), “The heretics appear to have indulged in the subtly perverse reasoning that somehow you could ‘be’ righteous without necessarily bothering to ‘practise’ righteousness. John roundly denies the possibility.”
The error that John here warns against is rampant in our day. In part, it is the fruit of those that teach that you may accept Christ as Savior without submitting to Him as Lord. Several years ago, I saw a tragic example of how this bad theology works out in people’s lives. We were in a motel (which is the only time I watch such TV shows) and there was a show about an up and coming actress. It clearly portrayed her as a sex symbol. Since then, I have seen her picture in sensual poses on many of the supermarket tabloids and the headlines have told about her marital breakup. But in spite of the overtly sensual portrayal in that program, the actress’ father assured the interviewer that she was a devout Christian!
John would say (3:7), “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” There should be a period at the end of verse 7, because verse 8 is parallel to verse 4. It begins the second section.
Just as 3:4 makes the point that sin is serious because it is rebellion against God, so 3:8 shows the serious nature of sin:
John states, “The one who practices sin is of the devil.” Again, John divides all people into two camps: those who practice righteousness (3:7) and those who practice sin (3:8). There is no third camp for those who do not believe in Jesus, but are decent, good people who never hurt anyone. You may protest, “Surely, my grandmother who was sweet towards everyone and who believed in the basic goodness of human nature, was not of the devil!”
The key to understanding John’s meaning lies in his next phrase, “for the devil sins [lit.] from the beginning.” This points us back to the original fall of Satan. God created Satan and all the angels as good, but Satan sinned against God and led a rebellion of other angels, who became demons. Most scholars believe that Isaiah 14:12-14, which on one level describes a taunt against the king of Babylon (14:4), is also a description of Satan’s fall:
How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, you who have weakened the nations! But you said in your heart, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of the assembly in the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.”
Notice that five times the devil said, “I will,” in opposition to God. He was not content with where God had created him. He wanted his own way. As we saw in verse 4, which is parallel to verse 8, the essence of sin is rebellion against God. The sinner says, “I will! I want my way! I will not submit to the Most High God.”
So whenever a person acts in line with his own will, without submitting to God’s will, he is committing the original sin of the devil. Whether it manifests itself as the humanly respectable, “I will be nice to others, so that people will think highly of me,” or as the reprehensible, “I will kill others to get what I want,” it all comes from the same source: the devil. Any action that originates in the human will that is not in submission to God is devilish, even if outwardly it is a nice, humanitarian, seemingly “good” action.
This parallels 3:5, where John said that Christ appeared to take away sins. Here the focus is on Christ’s coming to destroy Satan’s works. This refers mainly to the devil’s work of promoting sin in the human race. The word destroy is the Greek word, “to loose.” It’s as if we were bound by sin’s chains, but Jesus freed us. He came to pay the penalty for sin that we justly deserved. By so doing, He broke Satan’s power to accuse us before God (Rev. 12:10), and He broke sin’s power in the lives of believers (Rom. 6:10-13). Thus John is making the point that if we tolerate sin in our lives, we are siding with the devil and against Jesus Christ, who came to destroy the devil’s works.
John Stott (p. 125) nicely sums up John’s argument thus far:
If the first step to holiness is to recognize the sinfulness of sin, both in its essence as lawlessness and in its diabolical origin, the second step is to see its absolute incompatibility with Christ in His sinless Person and saving work. The more clearly we grasp these facts, the more incongruous will sin appear and the more determined we shall be to be rid of it.
Then John draws a logical conclusion:
John makes two points:
Verse 9 has generated a lot of confusion and controversy. It’s one thing to say that no one who is born of God practices sin, but then John goes farther and states that he is not able to sin! I’m sure that my experience is like yours: I feel quite capable of sinning and years of walking with the Lord have not lessened my ability! So what does John mean?
Here are some principles to guide us. First, we must assume that John did not contradict himself or any other New Testament writer. He has said (1:8), “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” He said that he is writing so that we may not sin, but then he adds (2:1), “and if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” He would not have written those words if believers were incapable of sinning.
Second, John’s main concern is not to delve into some deep theological discourse, but rather to be pastorally practical. He does not want his flock to be deceived by the heretics, whose errors lie behind the apostle’s words. Verse 10 is crucial to understanding the entire passage: John wants us to be able to identify the children of God and the children of the devil by observing their behavior. To do that, he again paints in black and white, with no gray areas. His point is that those who are truly born of God practice righteousness; those who are of the devil (the only other category) do not practice righteousness.
There have been many different attempts to explain verse 9 (Stott [pp. 130-136] lists seven; these are a few from his list.) Some have said that John means that believers cannot commit terrible sins, such as murder or what the Catholic Church labels “mortal” sins. But, clearly, John does not specify sins, and besides, believers are capable of committing such sins.
Others draw a distinction between the old and new natures of the believer, and argue that the new nature is incapable of sinning. While this may be true, it clearly is not John’s meaning here. The heretics could have used this to argue, “I’m not sinning; only my old nature is!” But in verse 10 John says that by observing the person’s behavior, we can tell whether he is a child of God or of the devil. He is talking about a whole person sinning, not just his nature.
Some holiness teachers think that the verse is teaching the possibility of attaining sinless perfection. They say that if you learn the secret of abiding in Christ, you will live without sin. While that may be so, John does not attribute the believer’s not sinning to the abiding life, but to the fact that he has been born of God. This is true of every believer, not just those who have attained it.
Some say that John means that believers cannot sin willfully or deliberately. But, both experience and Scripture show that believers are quite capable of willful, deliberate sin!
The key question in interpreting this verse is whether John is speaking about committing individual acts of sin, or is he talking about sin as a way of life? John uses the present tense throughout this section, and while the Greek present tense does not necessarily emphasize continuous action, it certainly allows for it. In 3:8, when John says, “the devil has sinned from the beginning,” the verb is present tense. Clearly he means, “From day one and persisting ever since, the devil is characterized by sinning.” Thus when John says that those born of God do not practice sin and that they cannot sin, he means that it is impossible for a child of God to persist in a lifestyle marked by sin.
The reason for this is not only that he has been born of God, but also that God’s seed abides in him. This refers to the new life that God imparts to those He begets as His children. That word picture is helpful in understanding John’s meaning. When you plant a seed in the ground, it does not sprout, grow and bear fruit in a day. It takes time, cultivation, water, and sunshine. Or, to use the human analogy, when a husband’s sperm unites with his wife’s ovum, new life begins. But it takes nine months before birth, and after that it takes years to grow to maturity. But, if life is present, it affects everything. It is impossible for a normal child not to grow.
So John is not talking about sinless perfection, but rather about the direction of the life of a believer. If God has imparted new life to you, so that you have become His child, you cannot go on living in sin. When you do fall into sin, you will recognize that you cannot go on in it. God will convict you of it and you will repent and walk in righteousness. A pig and a sheep may fall into the same mud hole, but there is a difference. The pig will love it and wallow in it, because that’s its nature. The sheep will want to get out and avoid that mud hole the next time, because it has a different nature. If God’s seed abides in you, you cannot wallow in the mud. If you like it in the mud and don’t want to get out, you may need to ask whether you truly have been born of God.
John’s last verse in this section explains and clinches his point: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.” This verse is parallel to John’s warning about deception in 3:7. Don’t be fooled. It’s easy to say, “I believe in Jesus.” But John says, “Look at his life. If he doesn’t practice righteousness, if he doesn’t live in obedience to God’s Word, especially with regard to love, his claim is false.” John’s final comment shows that true righteousness includes love for your brother and it introduces the relational test (3:11-18).
The modern American church has fallen into serious deception on this crucial matter of sin. The popular view is that there are two options for the Christian life. “Plan A” is for the really committed: you trust Jesus as Savior and Lord. This is tough. You have to obey Jesus totally, repenting of all your sins. It means giving up the right to spend your money as you choose, because you yield it to Jesus and manage it as His steward. It means following Jesus as His servant. He may call you to go to the mission field or even die as a martyr. But, you will have rewards in heaven.
If that’s too difficult, you may want to try “Plan B.” In this option, you accept Jesus as Savior, but you don’t need to follow Him as Lord. With this plan, you will go to heaven when you die, but you just don’t get as many rewards. But, you can enjoy the pleasures of sin now and at least get in the door of heaven later.
But the truth of the Bible, the truth that John emphasizes here is, “There is no Plan B!” Plan A is the only plan for eternal life. Christ calls you to follow Him as Savior and Lord. You cannot do this by your own strength or willpower, but only if He imparts new life to you, causing you to be born of God. If you have been born of God, it will be obvious. The new life in you will produce a life of righteousness. “Little children, make sure no one deceives you!”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
A woman was surprised at church one day when another woman, who had often snubbed her, went out of her way to give her a big hug before the service. She wondered what had initiated her change of heart.
She got her answer at the end of the service when the pastor instructed, “Your assignment for next week is the same as last week. I want you to go out there and love somebody you just can’t stand” (adapted from Reader’s Digest, [4/02], p. 48).
If loving others were only as easy as giving a hug to someone you don’t like, we all could excel in love. Just hug them and move on! But, love is a bit more difficult than that! It requires continual effort, because at the heart of loving others is putting the other person ahead of yourself, and that is always a huge battle. For this reason, the New Testament as a whole and the apostle John in this letter never tire of exhorting us to love one another.
John had seen the love of Christ demonstrated that night in the Upper Room, when Jesus took the basin of water and washed the disciples’ feet. He then heard Jesus say (John 13:34-35), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Then John saw the supreme demonstration of Christ’s love when He willingly went to the cross to die for our sins. And so the “son of thunder” became known as the “apostle of love.”
John has already reminded his little children of Jesus’ old-new commandment (2:7-11). He will yet devote the major part of chapter 4 (verses 7-21) to this theme. In fact, six times in 1 & 2 John, he refers directly to Jesus’ command that we love one another (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12; 2 John 5; plus the allusion in 1 John 2:7). In our text, John is in the second cycle of applying the three tests of authentic Christianity: the moral test of obedience to Jesus Christ (2:28-3:10); the social test of love for one another (
If we get weary of hearing over and over about the need to love one another, we should remember that John wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who knows our hearts. We need to examine ourselves constantly because our default mode is to revert to selfishness, not to love. In our text, John again gets out his black and white paint and does not mix them into shades of gray. He wants to expose the errors of the heretics in the plainest of terms. So he contrasts the world with the church. His message is,
The mark of the world is hatred, but the mark of the church is love.
That is a nice, clean statement, but as you ponder it you have to ask, “Is that really true?” I’ve known some wonderful, loving unbelievers and I’ve also known some real scoundrels in the church (not in this church, of course!). We’ve all met people who claim to be Christians, but frankly, you’d rather snuggle with a porcupine than try to get close to them! So, how do we square what John says with what we actually experience? Hopefully, that question will be answered as we work through the text (my sub-points are adapted from John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 144).
Sometimes to define a somewhat vague notion like love it is helpful to contrast it with the opposite, hatred. So John contrasts the love that we are to have for one another with Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel (3:11-12). Then, he states (3:13), “Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you.”
John here reflects Jesus’ words in the Upper Room (John 15:18-19 [see also, John 17:14]), “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” (Jesus believed in divine election, by the way!)
Not to doubt Jesus’ words, but rather to understand them, we have to ask, “Is this really true? How is the world marked by hatred, especially in light of all the nice unbelievers out there?” To answer these questions, we need to define our terms.
By the world, John means the unbelieving world, of course, which is under Satan’s dominion in opposition to God. But, in particular, John was targeting those who had left the church and were promoting false teaching about the person and work of Christ. In 2:19, he said, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us….” In the doctrinal section that follows our text, he says that these false prophets have gone out into the world (4:1). They are the spirit of antichrist, which “is already in the world” (4:3). “They are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them” (4:5).
When John speaks of love, he points us to the supreme example of Jesus laying down His life for us (3:16). Thus a helpful definition of biblical love is: a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. Jesus sacrificed Himself because He cared for us and He is committed to seek our highest good, namely, that ultimately we might share His glory.
Since hatred is the opposite of love, we may define it as, a selfish, insensitive attitude that shows itself in disregarding others’ good as I seek my own interests. The essence of hatred is the self-centered bent of fallen human nature that says, “I’ll help you if it helps me or if it’s not too much of a hassle. But if it comes down to you or me, I’m looking out for me!” When we understand hatred as such, we can see that it characterizes the unbelieving world. The world is motivated by self-interest. Self-sacrifice, to the world, is crazy.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what about examples of genuine love on the part of unbelievers?” While it may be true that most unbelievers are motivated by selfishness, we often see examples of unbelievers who sacrifice themselves on behalf of others. We see unbelieving parents who give themselves selflessly on behalf of their children. We hear of those who donate a kidney so that a family member, or even a perfect stranger, might live. We hear of soldiers who willingly die to protect their comrades. Don’t these examples contradict John’s words about the world’s hatred?
I believe that such examples may be explained by the fact of God’s common grace. Jesus said (Matt. 5:45) that the Father “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” He said (Luke 6:35b), “He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.”
Love is one of God’s gifts that He has not withdrawn completely from unregenerate people. It should serve as a witness to them, to point them to the source of it, because, as John will point out (4:7), “love is from God.” But, the fact that God has not completely withdrawn His grace from this rebellious world does not contradict John’s generalization, that the world is marked by hatred (see Rom. 1:29-31; 2 Tim. 3:1-2).
John says five things about hatred in our text, which are in direct contrast with God’s love that is to characterize the believer:
This is the only explicit Old Testament reference in John’s epistles, and the only proper name, except for references to Christ or God. I think that John chose Cain because he was the first person born on this earth under the curse of sin. His hatred toward his brother typifies the self-centered, evil bent of the fallen human heart. While our self-centeredness seldom goes to the extreme of murder, the roots are there.
Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel offered a better sacrifice by faith. Since faith is always a response to God’s revelation, we must assume that God had revealed to Cain and Abel the proper kind of sacrifice that He required. Abel obeyed by faith. Cain, in defiance and disobedience, brought an unacceptable offering. When his brother’s offering was accepted and Cain’s was rejected, his envy began to seethe. Even though God confronted Cain and exhorted him to repent (Gen. 4:6-7), Cain ignored the warning. As a result, he slaughtered his brother (the Greek word used means to slit the throat or to butcher).
John assumes the doctrine of original sin in 3:14, when he states that we have passed out of death into life, but the one who does not love abides in death. People do not begin as neutral or basically good and then decide either to choose or reject God. People are born into this world in a state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1). They need the new birth in order to pass out of death into life. The only other time that phrase appears is in John 5:24, where Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” So John begins with Adam’s firstborn, Cain, who typifies the hatred of the fallen human race.
Cain was “of the evil one” (3:12). John’s reference to the murderer (3:15) recalls Jesus’ words in John 8:44, where He states that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning.” So if we think that either hatred or love finds their roots in the human heart, we have not gone deep enough. Hatred finds its source in the devil, whereas love originates with God. This is not to blame the devil and absolve sinful people of responsibility for their sin. But, to harbor hatred is to oppose God and put yourself in league with the devil! Therefore, we need to be quick to judge our own hearts when we see these selfish attitudes rearing their ugly head.
At best, hatred becomes indifference or avoidance of another person, causing separation and distance in relationships. At worst, selfishness and hatred become murder (James 4:1-2). In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21, 22; see also Matt. 15:19) Jesus said that anger is tantamount to murder in God’s sight, because all murder begins there. While we cringe when we hear of someone murdering someone else, we often tolerate the roots of this sin by excusing our anger as justifiable. We need to see our own selfish anger as hideous and yank it out by the roots!
John asks, “And for what reason did he slay him?” It was not because Abel was a scoundrel doing evil. Rather, Cain’s deeds were evil and Abel’s were righteous. The root of Cain’s slaughter of his brother was that Cain was in rebellion against God. So, while hatred may be directed at other people, invariably the hateful person is at odds with God. He needs to confront his own sinful heart.
Thus hatred is typified in Adam’s firstborn, Cain, It originated with the devil. It divides people and may result in murder. It is motivated by personal sin or rebellion against God.
A person whose life is marked by selfish hatred of others shows no evidence of new life in Christ. That is the meaning of John’s words in verses 14 & 15. He is not saying that no murderer may be saved. Paul was a murderer before he was saved, and both David and Moses murdered men after they were saved. As in 3:9, here John uses present tense verbs that point to the overall direction of a person’s life. A person whose life is marked by a pattern of selfishness, envy, jealousy, strife, and hatred gives evidence that he remains in spiritual death.
While John’s words are an evidential test of a person’s spiritual condition, they are also an exhortation to those that profess to believe in Christ. As believers, we have to battle the hatred that stems from our own selfishness. While on the one hand, spiritual growth results inevitably from spiritual life, on the other hand it does not happen without our constant effort. Whenever the deeds of the flesh rear their ugly heads, we must put them to death and replace them with the fruit of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:19-23).
Thus, John shows that the mark of the world is hatred—the self-centered, “look out for number one” mentality, which if unchecked, results in murder. In stark contrast, he says that…
John draws a sharp, point-for-point contrast between the hatred that marks the world and the love that marks the church. Whereas hatred is typified in Adam’s firstborn, …
Verse 16 literally reads, “By this we have experientially come to know love, that That One laid down His life for us.” The cross is the supreme demonstration of what real love—God’s love—is. There is hardly a passage in the New Testament that speaks of God’s love that does not also speak of the cross. The most familiar is another 3:16, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (See, also, Gal. 2:20; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 5:25; 1 John 4:10.) If you want to know what God’s love is like, look at Jesus, the Righteous One, who willingly sacrificed Himself on behalf of the ungodly.
Whereas hatred originates with the devil, …
John will state this directly in 4:7, but it is implicit in our text. Love in the believer comes from God. In 3:10b, John said that the one who does not love is not of God, implying that the one who loves is of God. In 3:17, he says that if we do not demonstrate practical love for those in need, the love of God does not abide in us. If you lack love for someone, first make sure that you are born of God. Then, ask Him for it.
Whereas hatred divides people and may result in murder, …
Jesus showed His love by laying down His life for us. Thus (3:16), “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” That is a hard saying! Be honest—would you lay down your life for the people in this room? You can easily sit here and say, “Yes, I’d die for my fellow Christians.” But, the urge to save your own skin is pretty strong. Who can truly say in advance, “I’d die for my brothers?”
But John doesn’t leave us to sit around speculating about what we might do if persecution hits. He brings it down to everyday living (3:17): “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?” Ouch! It’s easy to say that you would lay down your life for the brethren. But if you aren’t doing it inch by inch, in the little details of setting aside your selfishness to serve others, beginning at home (Eph. 5:25), it’s empty talk to say, “I’d die for my brothers in Christ!”
Self-sacrifice is never convenient. It’s always more of a hassle to meet someone’s needs than to ignore him. But, John’s point is the same as Jesus’ point in the parable of the Good Samaritan: We must not ignore others’ needs, but rather, sacrifice our time, energy, and money to help them out. This does not mean indiscriminately doling out money to those who are lazy or irresponsible (2 Thess. 3:10-12). We need discernment and wisdom to know how best to help a needy person. But we also need to be careful not to excuse our indifference by labeling the other person as lazy or irresponsible. Love unites people through practical deeds of self-sacrifice.
Whereas hatred is motivated by personal sin, …
That’s the point of verse 16. If God’s love as shown on the cross abides in your heart, it will flow through you to others. If you’re running short on love, stop and meditate on what Jesus did for you. If the servant who had been forgiven the huge debt had stopped to think about it, he would have forgiven his fellow servant the lesser debt (Matt. 18:23-35). Or, as John states (4:11), “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Finally, whereas hatred is the evidence of spiritual death, …
John states (3:14), “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.” While this fruit of the Spirit never grows to perfect maturity in this lifetime, you should be able to see growth in love when you compare your self-centered life before conversion with your focus since you were saved. If you say that you know Christ, but continue to live for yourself, if you’re unwilling to be inconvenienced or sacrifice yourself and your possessions to meet the needs of others, you need to examine whether or not you’ve truly passed out of death into life. If you have tasted God’s love in Christ at the cross, the new direction of your life will be to grow in love for others.
In verse 11, John says, “This is the message which you have heard from the beginning.” He means, from the beginning of your Christian life you were taught to love one another. It’s a basic truth that you should start to learn and practice from the first day of your Christian experience. God’s love flowing through us to one another should so mark the church that it draws a sharp contrast between us and the world.
Ray Stedman (Expository Studies in 1 John [Word], pp. 264-265) tells the story of a Jewish man named Art, who was raised as an atheist. Early in life, he became a committed Marxist. At the close of World War II, he was in Germany with the American army and saw the gas chambers at the concentration camps. It filled him with hatred, first toward the Germans and then, as he realized that this went deeper than nationality, at the whole human race. He came back to Berkeley and gave himself to education, but he came to see that it was not the answer. Education could not change hearts.
Finally, he resigned his position. His wife lost her mind and was put in a mental institution. Divorced, and without ties, he went out to wander. One rainy day in Greece, grubby and dirty, he was hitchhiking. No one wanted to pick up a seedy looking character like him. He had stood in the rain for hours when a Cadillac stopped. To Art’s amazement, the driver did not just gesture for him to get in. He got out of the car, came around and began to pump his hand and welcome him warmly. He took Art’s dirty rucksack and threw it on the clean upholstery. Then he drove Art to a hotel, rented him a room, and gave him some food.
Finally, he asked Art what he was doing and where he was going. All the pent-up heartache, misery, and resentment of a lifetime came pouring out of this young Jewish atheist, while the man sat and listened. When Art was through, the man said, “You know what this world needs? Those who are willing to wash one another’s feet.” Art said, “I never heard anything so beautiful. Why do you say that?” The man said, “Because that’s what my Lord did.” For the first time in his life, this young atheist heard a clear presentation of the gospel. He became a Christian and went on to devote his life to serving the Lord.
That unnamed man, quietly going about being a Christian, demonstrated what John says to us (3:18), “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Every child has a basic need to feel assured of his parents’ love. It should be obvious that if parents verbally or physically abuse a child, that child will not feel loved by his parents. Eventually, he will distance himself from them through withdrawal or rebellion. So even when a child disobeys and must be disciplined, it is important for parents to affirm their love for him. Assurance of love is essential for close relationships.
The same is true spiritually. Even though the heavenly Father disciplines us for our good, that we might share His holiness, He does it out of love (Heb. 12:6, 10). He wants us, as His children, to be assured of His great love for us. John begins chapter 3 by exclaiming (3:1), “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.” God wants His children to feel His arms of love around them, even when they go through difficult trials.
The enemy of our souls knows that we will not feel close to God if we doubt our standing before Him as beloved children. So he accuses us in an attempt to drive a wedge between us and God (Rev. 12:10; Zech. 3:1-4). In addition, at times our conscience condemns us as we compare ourselves with the holy standards of God’s Word. We know that we should love others, but in our hearts, we struggle with anger or bitterness or hatred toward those who have wronged us. We know that we should pray for God to bless this difficult person with His salvation, but inwardly, we’d rather see him punished. When we have those thoughts, either our guilty conscience or the enemy comes in and says, “A true Christian can’t have thoughts like that! You’re not even saved!”
John is in the second cycle of applying the three tests of authentic Christianity: (1) the moral test of obedience; (2) the relational test of love; and, (3) the doctrinal test of faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. During the first application of the tests, John paused after the second test to give a word of assurance about his confidence in his readers’ spiritual condition (2:12-14), as well as a warning about the danger of worldliness (2:15-17). Here, in the second application of the tests, John follows the same pattern. He has repeated the first test of obedience (2:28-3:10) and the second test of love (ving the truth (4:1-6), he interjects this word about assurance.
Our text falls into two sections: (1) the condemning heart and the basis for assurance (3:19-20); (2) the confident heart and the blessings of assurance (3:21-24). John is saying that…
When our hearts condemn us, we must rest on the basis of assurance; when our hearts are confident, we will enjoy the blessings of assurance.
Before we examine the text more carefully, I should mention that there are two very different approaches to these verses. Some commentators whom I highly respect—John Calvin, Charles Simeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones—interpret these verses as a warning to those who do not conscientiously apply John’s admonition about love. They understand these verses to be aimed at those who love only with word or tongue, not in deed and truth (3:18). So they say that if anyone is condemned by his conscience, how much more will he be condemned by God, who knows all things. They do not see these as verses of comfort to disturbed hearts, but rather as verses to disturb comfortable hearts.
While I agree that we should never shrug off our shortcomings or ignore a guilty conscience, I think that to view these verses primarily as a warning is to misinterpret them. John begins this chapter with those wonderful words of assurance of the Father’s great love for us as His children. In the section about love, he addresses his readers as “brethren” (3:13) and “little children” (3:18). In our text, he calls them “beloved” (3:21) to remind them that they are loved both by God and by the apostle. Also, in parallel with the first cycle of the tests, the interruption was for the purpose of encouraging those who may feel like they’re falling short. So here, I believe that John’s main purpose is to assure his little children of their standing before God, as well as to urge them to go on in faith, obedience, and love.
On the subject of assurance of salvation, R. C. Sproul (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith [Tyndale], pp. 201-202) points out four possibilities. First, there are those who are unsaved and they know that they are unsaved. They don’t make any claim of salvation. Second, there are people who are saved but do not know they are saved. They doubt their salvation, perhaps due to a troubled conscience. Third, there are people who are saved and know that they are saved. Fourth, there are those who are not saved but confidently believe that they are saved. They have false assurance. As I understand our text, John is mainly addressing the second group—those who are saved, but they’re having doubts because of their awareness of falling short of God’s commandments. John wants them to know the basis and the blessings of true assurance.
John’s meaning in these two verses is that a person who is troubled with doubts and self-condemnation must take himself in hand and confront himself with what he knows to be true about God’s work in his life and what is true of God’s greater knowledge of his heart. As James Boice puts it (The Epistles of John [Zondervan], p. 122), “… faith (which is the opposite of doubt), being based on knowledge, must be fed by it.” John makes two points:
There are some difficult grammatical and interpretive problems here that would be tedious to explain in this message. Suffice it to say that I think that the way that the NASB and the NIV translate the verses gives an adequate sense of the meaning.
When John says, “by this” (3:19) he is referring back to 3:17-18, where he talks about love expressing itself in practical good deeds. As we saw there, John’s point is that self-sacrificing love is the mark of the Christian, whereas self-centered hatred is the mark of the world. Thus in verse 19 John is saying, “When you are troubled by doubts and self-condemnation, don’t focus on your failures. (After all, what Christian hasn’t failed at times?) Rather, focus on the many times that God’s love has flowed through you since you became a believer. Let these acts of self-sacrifice be your evidence that you are of the truth, and cease doubting.”
It is helpful at times to examine our failures and learn from them. Why did I sin in that way? How can I avoid that sin in the future? But it is not helpful to dwell on your sins and become introspective to the point of depression. You’ve got to know your own heart here. Due to personality or other factors some are more prone to be introspective. Some are by nature such perfectionists that if they do not come up to God’s perfect standard of love, they condemn themselves, even after they’ve confessed their sins. While we should maintain a sensitive conscience and not tolerate any disobedience or sin, at the same time we need to accept our human limitations. Our overall focus should be on what God is doing in our lives, not on our failures.
Probably if I were to ask, “Name five times you’ve failed,” you wouldn’t have any problem coming up with your list. But if I said, “Name five times you’ve experienced God’s victory,” you’d have to think harder. John is saying, “Look at the specific deeds of love that God has done through you, and be assured.”
If you can’t think of any such deeds of love, you may need to examine whether or not you truly know Christ. If you have experienced God’s love in Christ, then you ought to love others (3:16; 4:11). If you never see opportunities to show God’s love to others, you are too self-focused. Many people come to church with the mindset, “I need to get my needs met.” In fact, they live each day with that selfish focus. They get frustrated or depressed because others are not meeting their needs. The proper way to come to church or to live each day is with the mindset, “Lord, use me to meet someone’s needs.” When you live that way, you find that the Lord does meet your needs. When you live to love others, it comes back to you “a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (Luke 6:38).
So John says, “We will know by this—by our loving deeds—that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him.”
A second truth by which we may assure our hearts is that of God’s greater knowledge of us. I agree with James Boice (p. 125), that John is saying, “… whatever our hearts may say, God knows us better than even we ourselves do and, nevertheless, has acquitted us. Therefore, we should reassure ourselves by His judgment, which alone is trustworthy, and refuse to trust our own.” As I said earlier, some take this to mean that God’s judgment of our hearts is more rigorous than our judgment, not more merciful. But that does not fit the context here.
Two other texts illustrate and reinforce what John is saying here. One is when Jesus met Peter after the resurrection, after Peter’s shameful denials that he knew Jesus. To restore him, Jesus asked Peter (John 21:15), “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Jesus replied, “Tend My lambs.” Then, Jesus repeated the question (21:16), “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter answered, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Shepherd My sheep.”
Peter had denied Jesus three times, so Jesus asks a third time (21:17), “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved, probably because he was recalling his awful sin. But note his reply, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Tend My sheep.” If effect, Peter said, “Lord, as far as I know my own heart, I do love You. But, You know me better than I know myself, and I appeal to Your knowledge.”
The other text is Romans 8. In verse 1, Paul affirms, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Then, in 8:31-34, Paul wrote these reassuring words,
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.
He goes on to state that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That is the thrust of John’s point in our text. If you know that you are God’s child through faith in Jesus Christ, then even when your heart condemns you for falling short, God is greater than your heart. He knows that He has justified you. If you have sinned, by all means confess that sin and come back to Him. But don’t allow yourself to go on in guilt and condemnation. Assurance is based on the knowledge of how God has already worked in your life and the knowledge of God’s greater knowledge of your heart. He saved you even though He knew every sin that you ever would commit. He wants all of His children to be assured of His great love.
After giving this basis for assurance to the condemning heart, John goes on to give the blessings of assurance that come from a confident heart:
John says (3:21), “Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” This confidence leads to two blessings, that of answered prayer (3:22-23), and that of the abiding relationship through the Spirit (3:24). In support of the interpretation that I am advocating, B. F. Westcott (The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 118) writes, “The thought here is of the boldness with which the son appears before the Father, and not of that with which the accused appears before the Judge.”
This is illustrated by a story of a Roman emperor who was parading through the streets of the capital in a victory celebration. Roman soldiers lined the parade route to keep back the cheering masses. At one point along the route there was a small platform where the royal family was sitting. As the emperor approached, his youngest son, who was just a little boy, jumped down, burrowed through the crowd, and tried to run out to meet him. One of the guards caught the boy by the arm and said, “You can’t do that! Don’t you know who that is? That’s the emperor!” But the boy quickly replied, “He may be your emperor, but he’s my father!” (From “Our Daily Bread,” July, 1977.)
John wants us to know that if we are God’s children, we have that kind of confident access to the Father’s presence. He outlines two blessings that result from this confidence:
John makes a staggering claim (3:22), “and whatever we ask we receive from Him….” John was not coming up with a new doctrine of prayer here. As in so much of First John, the apostle is reflecting the words of Jesus in the Upper Room, where He told the apostles (John 14:13-14), “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” (He repeats the same promise in John 15:7, 16, and 16:23-24.)
To be honest, I do not completely understand or experience these promises to answer all of our prayers. I realize that there are conditions attached to the promises. The Bible never teaches that we can pray for selfish wishes and they will be granted in Aladdin’s genie fashion. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in accord with His will. As in the Lord’s prayer, we are praying (Matt. 6:10), “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Furthermore, John adds (1 John 3:22) that the reason we receive whatever we ask is, “because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.” God does not answer the prayers of the disobedient. To do what is pleasing in God’s sight refers to living with a God-ward focus, seeking to please Him beginning on the heart (or thought) level (1 Thess. 2:4).
In 3:23, John sums up God’s commandments in one command with two prongs, “that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” The verb tense of “believe” points to the act of faith at salvation, whereas the tense of “love” indicates ongoing love for one another. This is similar to Paul’s words (Gal. 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” When we trust in Christ and walk in love, He promises to answer our prayers.
Also, we need to understand that God does not answer our prayers in our way or in our timing. To teach us in His school of faith, He sometimes makes us wait on Him for years. Sometimes He answers by giving us what we really need, which isn’t always exactly what we were asking for!
Where I struggle with these promises (I’m being very candid here), is when I ask for something that is for God’s glory and according to His revealed will, but He doesn’t answer. I have prayed for the salvation of people who have died without being saved. I have prayed for the restoration of Christian marriages that have ended in divorce anyway. I have prayed for the repentance of sinning Christians who did not repent.
My only answer to these difficulties is that I do not understand the mysteries of God’s ways, and so I do not always pray correctly. When Jesus predicted Peter’s denials, He said, “I have prayed for you, that your faith would not fail” (Luke 22:32). I probably would have prayed that Peter would not have sinned at all, but Jesus didn’t pray that. Concerning Jesus’ prayers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones observes (Children of God [Crossway], p. 131), “God answered Him and granted His requests, and the nearer we approximate to Him, in the same way we can be certain that our requests will be granted.” So as we grow to “do the things pleasing in His sight,” we will see more and more of our prayers answered.
John has already spoken about our abiding in Christ, but this is the first time he has mentioned God’s abiding in us, which Jesus taught also (John 15:4). As in John 15:10, so in our text, obedience is the condition of the abiding relationship. As we walk in obedience to the Lord Jesus, we enjoy close fellowship with Him and He with us. His life flows through us, producing fruit that pleases Him.
John adds (3:24b) that the way we know that He abides in us is “by the Spirit whom He has given us.” Although John has already referred to “the anointing” that abides in us (2:27), this is his first explicit mention of the Holy Spirit. This serves to introduce the next section, with its emphasis on discerning God’s Spirit from evil spirits.
At first glance, it may seem that John is referring to an inner, subjective sense of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. But, John Stott argues that this is not so. Rather, John is saying that the Spirit’s presence in our lives is manifested objectively in our life and conduct. Stott writes (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 151), “So if we would assure our hearts, when they accuse and condemn us, we must look for evidence of the Spirit’s working, and particularly whether He is enabling us to believe in Christ, to obey God’s commandments and to love the brethren; for the condition of abiding is this comprehensive obedience (24a), and the evidence of abiding is the gift of the Spirit (24b).” Thus John comes back full circle to knowledge as the basis for assurance.
The first anchor for assurance is always faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If your trust is in Christ, God has promised you eternal life and He has promised never to allow you to be snatched out of His hand (John 3:16; 10:28-30). A man once told D. L. Moody that he was worried because he didn’t feel saved. Moody asked, “Was Noah safe in the ark?” “Certainly he was,” the man replied. “Well, what made him safe, his feeling or the ark?” The point is, if you’re in Christ, it’s not your feelings that save you from God’s judgment. It’s Christ who saves! Faith puts you on the ark! Make sure you’re on board!
But, the problem was that the false teachers claimed to believe in Jesus, but their claim was just empty words. By their deeds, they denied Christ. So, throughout First John, the apostle gives these tests of authentic faith. Do you obey God’s commandments? Do you love the brethren? Do you believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, including His sacrificial death for you?
You may think, “Yes, but I don’t do those things perfectly. I often fall short.” It’s to you that John writes these verses. Do you see evidence of God’s working in your life through your loving others? Do you see answers to your prayers? Do you enjoy fellowship with Christ as you live to please Him? If so, know that God is greater than your heart. He wants you to be confident in His love. He wants to assure you that you are His child.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
P. T. Barnum made a fortune on the theory that “a sucker is born every minute,” and he has many disciples today. The Internet has only widened the door of opportunity for those that prey on the unsuspecting. I have read that the second most lucrative industry in Nigeria is scamming foolish Americans out of their money by promising to give them millions of dollars.
Perhaps even more widespread than financial scams are spiritual scams. False cults and religions lure millions into their traps, promising them fulfillment, happiness, and more. Mormonism is growing rapidly worldwide. Jehovah’s Witnesses aggressively promote their heresies in just about every country of the world. It has been predicted that Islam will take over Europe before the end of this century, and it is also growing in America. And, judging by the popularity of it, many Americans are apparently being sucked in by the blasphemous book and movie, The DaVinci Code.
Even among those claiming to be evangelicals, who say that they believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, false teaching abounds. The “New Perspective on Paul,” which has captured many evangelical scholars and pastors, undermines justification by faith alone. The Emergent Church movement embraces much of the postmodern philosophy that there is no absolute truth. Christianity Today (March, 2006, pp. 52-54) recently ran an article on a theologian who was at Bethel College, but now teaches at Regent University. He suggests that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world’s other major religions and that Christians should “be open to learning from and being enriched by the Spirit’s work in world religions” (p. 54)! With respect to other religions, he asks, “If others have something to say about God, should we not at least listen both sympathetically and critically?”
In addition to these blatant errors, the “seeker church” movement has subtly redefined the gospel, so that the issue is no longer that we are sinners who need reconciliation to a holy God. Rather, we are religious consumers with needs that God is willing and ready to meet, if we will just give Him a try. An ad this month in our local paper, sponsored by a seeker church, read,
Have you ever wanted more out of life? We can help! Discover powerful and easy secrets that have been proven and are guaranteed to give you the results you want. Whether you desire love, health, money or simply more fulfillment and satisfaction in your life, now is the time to take advantage of this new and exclusive series being introduced for the first time in the Flagstaff area—absolutely free. Learn how you, too, can start seeing an immediate difference! No matter who you are, you, too, can profit from knowing these safe, trusted and easy-to-understand principles for personal growth and achievement. Stop missing out on the life you could be living. You have nothing to lose … everything to gain!
The ad goes on to invite interested people to attend their first session, “How to Find That-Something-More.” I wonder, are they going to get people in the door and then tell them that they must repent of their sins and deny self to follow Jesus as Lord? If not, what are they offering in the name of Christianity? Where does the Bible promise to grant sinners’ desires for love, health, money, or more fulfillment and satisfaction?
Evangelical pastors often say that we don’t need to emphasize doctrine or theology, because that is divisive. Rather, we need to come together on the areas where we agree and demonstrate love, tolerance, and unity to the world. This includes unity with the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches a false way of salvation.
In view of these many deceptive tactics by the enemy, John’s words in our text are absolutely vital for the preservation of God’s truth. (Many who buy into the current thinking would wince at my statement, which implies that there is such a thing as God’s truth, and that anyone can know it and proclaim it.) After telling us (3:23) that God’s commandment is “that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another,” John now (4:1) tells us not to believe everything: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” John especially had in mind the false teachers who had left the church and were drawing others after them (2:19, 22-23).
As Ray Stedman points out (Expository Studies in 1 John [Word], p. 296), “It is significant that this warning comes in the midst of John’s discourse about love, because false spirits tend to make a great deal of the subject of love. Every cult, every deviant group, every false movement makes its appeal in the name of love.”
Like John, Paul emphasized the demonic aspect of false teachers (1 Tim. 4:1), “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” Of course, the deceitful spirits and their demonic doctrines teach through people who advocate the false teaching. So we must pay close attention to John’s words. He is saying that …
Believers must be discerning in spiritual matters.
Our text falls into three parts: John gives us the reason for discernment (4:1); the basis for discernment (4:2-3); and, the evidence of discernment (4:4-6).
A familiar falsehood goes, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something.” That is sheer nonsense! You can believe that you can fly and leap from the edge of the Grand Canyon, flapping your arms for all you’re worth. But believing such falsehood has no effect on keeping you in the air. Of course, those who argue that it doesn’t matter what you believe would say that there is a great difference between science and spiritual matters. They would say that science is objectively true, whereas spiritual matters are subjectively true. If it “works” for you, then it’s “true.”
But that assumes that God is merely a projection of people’s imaginations, rather than that He actually exists and that He is the creator of all that is. The Bible assumes rather that God really exists and that He spoke the heavens and earth into existence (Gen. 1:1). Furthermore, the Bible teaches the actual existence of Satan and other fallen angels, called demons. John’s teaching here assumes that behind all truth in the spiritual realm is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26). Behind all spiritually false teaching is “the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6), led by Satan, but including all of his demonic forces. Whether they know it or not, behind every false prophet or false teacher is an evil spirit promoting the errors that they teach.
From the day that Satan deceived Eve in the garden, until the last days, when the final antichrist will deceive the world (2 Thess. 2:3-12), evil spirits have promoted false teaching to lead people away from the living and true God. When John says, “many false prophets have gone out into the world,” we should realize that these were not sinister, evil looking characters. They didn’t blatantly encourage Satan-worship or child-sacrifice. They used Christian lingo and professed to believe in Jesus. No doubt, they had attractive personalities and convincing arguments. Jesus called them wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). Paul warned that these men disguise themselves as apostles of Christ and servants of righteousness. Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light, not darkness (2 Cor. 11:13-14).
Hence, John tells his beloved flock (4:1), “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” Paul said a similar thing. After saying that we should “not despise prophetic utterances,” he added, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21). True faith is not a blind leap into the dark. It examines its object carefully before putting trust in it. Thus, as John Stott observes (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 153), both Paul and John assumed, as the Reformers insisted, that “even the humblest Christian possessed ‘the right of private judgment’ … and both could and should apply the objective test John is about to give in the next verse.”
We need spiritual discernment because Satan and his forces are alive and well, promoting error at every opportunity. But, how do we test the spirits?
A false teacher may be gentle and loving. He may speak prophecies that come true. He may even perform miracles or cast out demons or speak in tongues (Matt. 7:22; Exod. 7:11, 22; 8:7; Deut. 13:1-3). But, the question is, does he lead people to follow a false god? Specifically, John lays down the rule (4:2-3), “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh means to agree with that statement, but it also means something more. The demons all agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come in the flesh (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7). To confess this truth about Jesus implies submitting your life to Him as Lord (Rom. 10:9-10).
Furthermore, John’s test requires believing in the true deity and humanity of Jesus. “Has come” implies His preexistence as the eternal Son of God. Jesus stated His own preexistence when He told the Jews, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58). Or, as John begins his gospel (John 1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
When John states (1 John 4:2) that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” he is referring not only to His true deity, but also to His true humanity. The Docetists taught that matter is evil; thus Jesus was only a spirit-being who seemed to be a real man. The Cerenthian Gnostics, whom John was probably combating, taught that Jesus was a mere man, but that “the Christ,” a divine emanation, came upon Him at His baptism, but left just before His crucifixion. John’s test refutes both of these heresies. Jesus is the Christ (the Anointed One, or Messiah) who was conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. He had a human body, although apart from sin.
To deny that Jesus is true God and at the same time true man is to deny the Christian faith. To deny either Jesus’ deity or His humanity is to deny that He is our Savior. If He were not God, He would have been a sinner and His death on the cross could not have atoned for anything beyond His own sins. If He were not man, He could not have assumed our sins on the cross (Heb. 2:14-17). Thus faith in Him to save from sin would be worthless. Thus any teaching that denies that Jesus is true God and true man, that as the second person of the trinity, Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, is a doctrine of demons. It is the spirit of antichrist.
Implicit in John’s warning here is that the content of our theology matters greatly! The difference between a person in a false cult who is going to hell and a true believer in Jesus Christ, who is going to heaven, is largely one of theology. Cultists are often more zealous and more knowledgeable about what they believe than we are. But, they deny that Jesus is true God in human flesh; we affirm it. John Calvin observes (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on 4:2, p. 232), “Yet he only repeats here what we have met with before, that as Christ is the object at which faith aims, so he is the stone at which all heretics stumble. As long then as we abide in Christ, there is safety; but when we depart from him, faith is lost, and all truth is rendered void.” So I encourage you to study sound doctrine, especially with regard to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Thus John has shown us why we must be discerning, because Satan and his forces are actively trying to deceive us on essential biblical truth. He has shown us that the basis for discernment is a person’s confession about Jesus Christ as true God and true man. But, how do we recognize such discernment in others or in ourselves? How do we identify true discernment?
Most English translations reflect the Greek text, which begins verses 4, 5, and 6 with emphatic pronouns: You, they, and we. The first two pronouns portray two very different responses, that of true believers (John’s “little children”) and that of the false teachers and those who follow them. The “we” of verse 6 sets forth the standard by which to measure others’ or your own response, namely, how does a person respond to the apostolic witness?
When John says, “You are from God, little children,” he is pointing again to the new birth. Christianity is not just a matter of subscribing to certain creeds or correct doctrines, although that is essential. It is a matter of being born of God so that you receive new life from Him and become His child. This new birth is absolutely essential if you want to be able to understand and hold to the truth. This is so important that John repeats the phrase “from God” in 4:1, 2, 3, 4, & 6 (twice). By way of contrast, the false teachers and those who follow them are “from the world” (4:5, twice).
Without the new birth, a person is incapable of understanding or obeying God’s truth. Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews (John 8:43, 47), “Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word…. He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason you do not hear them, because you are not of God.” Jesus was using hear in the same way that John uses listen (4:6). It refers to hearing in the sense of both understanding and obeying the truth.
By “overcome them,” John means that his hearers have resisted the false teaching. The reason that they have overcome is not only that they are from God, but also that with the new birth, they also received the Holy Spirit (“the anointing,” 2:27), who indwells them. He is greater than he who is in the world (Satan, who inspires the false teachers). Even though the Gnostic teachers may have been intellectually superior to John’s “little children,” the presence of the indwelling Spirit gave his readers the ability to discern and thus avoid the errors of the false teachers.
How does the Spirit preserve us from error? It is not enough to be a spiritual ignoramus and say, “the Spirit will protect me from error.” The Spirit protects us through God’s Word, which reveals the truth about the person and work of Christ (4:2-3). The Word is the measure by which we test the spirits, but as Calvin points out (p. 230), “except the Spirit of wisdom be present, to have God’s word in our hands will avail little or nothing, for its meaning will not appear to us.” So we need diligently to study God’s Word in dependence on the Holy Spirit for understanding. Then we will be able to overcome false teachers.
“They [the false teachers] are from the world; therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them.” As we have seen (2:15), the world is that evil system under Satan’s dominion that is opposed to God and His kingdom. The world system is built around the principle of taking glory from God and transferring it to proud, self-willed man. That was Satan’s original temptation to Eve in the garden. He challenged God’s word and suggested to Eve that if she ate the forbidden fruit, she would become like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:1-5). Any teaching that detracts from God’s glory and sovereignty and exalts man by feeding his pride is satanic at the core.
Verse 5 may imply that these false teachers were drawing a big crowd. The world was listening to them. When you tell the world what it wants to hear, you will not lack an audience. When a false teacher sets aside the unpopular notion that all have sinned, and he tells people that they are wonderful and that God exists to help them fulfill their desires, he will gain a following. But the problem is, that message is not from God. It is from the world and the god of this world. The practical application for us is, don’t judge the success of a ministry by its size! Judge it by its faithfulness to the truth of the gospel as revealed in the Bible.
Some understand the “we” of verse 6 to refer to all believers. But it stands in antithesis to the “they” of verse 5, and so it is better to interpret it as referring to the apostles. “We [apostles] are from God; the one who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us.” The one who knows God is synonymous with the one who is from God, the one who is born again. These people listen to the apostles, which means that they listen with understanding and obedience. They accept the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ as God in human flesh. As we have seen, the one who is not of God does not hear His word (John 8:47; see 1 Cor. 2:14).
John Stott (p. 158) points out that John’s claim, “whoever knows God listens to us,” would be the height of arrogance if he were speaking as an individual. But the apostles were entrusted with the special authority to lay the foundation of the church through their witness and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 16:16-18; John 14:26; Eph. 2:22; 2 Cor. 10:8). We have the apostolic teaching preserved in the New Testament. Thus the standard by which to judge anyone’s (including our own) spiritual discernment is, “What is the person’s response to the apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament?” Without that standard, every person becomes his own measure of “truth,” filled with pride, and not in submission to Christ as Lord.
The late A. W. Tozer had some wise counsel on “How to Try the Spirits” (adapted from, Moody Monthly [12/79], pp. 51-55). He posed seven tests to apply to any teaching:
Ray Stedman titles his sermon on our text, “When Unbelief is Right.” His final statement is (p. 304), “God help us to be unbelievers in error as well as believers in truth.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
The church father, Jerome, said that when the apostle John was in his extreme old age, he was so weak that he had to be carried into the church meetings. At the end of the meeting he would be helped to his feet to give a word of exhortation to the church. Invariably, he would repeat, “Little children, let us love one another.” The disciples began to grow weary of the same words every time, and they finally asked him why he always said the same thing over and over. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if this only is done, it is enough” (cited by John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 49).
As we come to these verses, we may identify with those early believers. John has already emphasized the importance of love in 2:7-11. He hit it again in 3:11-18. We may be prone to say, “Okay, brother, we’ve got that one down now. Let’s move on to something else.” But John not only repeats the imperative to love one another in 4:7-5:4, but also he hits it longer and harder than at any other point in the book. He wants to make sure that we understand that love is not an optional virtue for the believer. It is to be the distinguishing mark of the church in the world. John goes so far as to say that if you do not love others, you do not know God (4:8). So we all need to examine our own lives by this supreme standard.
By way of introduction, note that while love is the inevitable result of being born of God, it is not the automatic result. John states (4:7), “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” The implication is that the life of God imparted to us in the new birth manifests itself in love for others. If we are children of the One whose very nature is love, then we will be like our Father. But at the same time, John commands (4:11), “Beloved, if God so loves us, we also ought to love one another.” It is not automatic or effortless! There is always room for growth in love.
Also, note that love is not opposed to truth. John has just spent six verses warning us (4:1), “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” He did not say, “Let’s just set aside those points of doctrine where we disagree and come together where we do agree, loving those who differ on these matters.” Because these men denied essential truth about Jesus Christ, John calls them false prophets, whose teaching is the spirit of antichrist. Love does not mean that we set aside the truth for the sake of unity. John was there when Jesus prayed that His disciples would be one, that the world would know that the Father sent Him (John 17:23). But he also heard Jesus pray, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
We have to exercise wise discernment here. Some doctrinal differences are not essential to the gospel, and we need to love brothers who differ with us on these matters. Some of these doctrines are important for how we live the Christian life, and so we may vigorously debate them among ourselves. But we must always remember that we are debating as brothers in Christ. If we divide from one another over every minor point of doctrine, we fall into the errors of “fighting fundamentalism.” At the heart of that sort of cantankerous behavior is a spirit of pride, where I assert that everyone must agree with me on every minor issue.
At the same time, some issues fall into a gray zone, where salvation may not be at stake, but to embrace a particular view will have momentous consequences. For example, to embrace so-called “evangelical feminism,” which argues that there are no gender distinctions in the church, has significant implications both for the church and the home. On a practical level, I cannot see any way that those who believe that women may be pastors or elders can work in the same church with those who believe that the Bible prohibits women from holding these offices. The positions are mutually exclusive. But, we should not accuse those who differ with us of not being saved, unless they also deny the essentials of the gospel.
But there are other doctrines where believing or rejecting them make the difference between heaven and hell. On these issues, we must never compromise truth for the sake of love. To deny the necessity of the substitutionary atonement of Christ (which John affirms in verse 10), or that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, apart from our works (Eph. 2:8-9), would be to deny the gospel. To deny the trinitarian nature of God, or the deity of Christ or His perfect humanity, would be to deny the gospel. We do not practice God’s love if we set aside such important truths for the sake of unity. It would not be loving for a doctor to give a lot of hugs to a person with cancer, if he did not warn them of their serious condition and seek to provide the cure.
The connection between what John says in 4:1-6 and his abrupt change of subject in 4:7ff. stems from 3:23: “This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.” In 4:1-6, John explains the first part of that commandment, namely, believing in the name of His Son Jesus Christ. Now, he turns to the second part of the commandment, the need to love one another. He tells us why we must love one another:
We must love one another because God is love and He showed it by sending His Son as the propitiation for our sins.
John states the commandment and gives the reason for it (4:7-8). Then he points us to the supreme illustration of love in the whole world, the Father’s love in sending His Son to die for our sins (4:9-10). Then he restates the commandment in light of God’s great love (4:11). He will go on to show how love for one another is evidence of God’s abiding in us and our abiding in Him (4:12-16). And, he shows (4:17-21) that love for one another is evidence that we are mature in our love for God.
Twice (4:7, 11) John practices what he preaches by addressing his readers as “beloved.” Of course, genuine love requires much more than calling someone tender names, but John’s readers knew him to be a man who practiced love for them. His words and his behavior were in harmony.
Our culture uses the word “love” in many different ways: “I love pizza!” “I love the mountains!” “I love my children.” We often think that love is a sentimental, syrupy feeling. So we need to remember the biblical definition of love. Based on several similar texts (John 3:16; 13:34; Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 John 4:9-10), I worked out this definition: Biblical love is a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.
At its heart, biblical love is a commitment, and thus it may be commanded. But it is not a commitment without feeling, but a caring commitment. In other words, biblical love involves delight, not just duty. Also, this caring commitment is not just an attitude, but an action: it shows itself in deeds. Those deeds often require self-sacrifice, seen supremely in Jesus’ going to the cross. The goal of this commitment is the highest good of the one loved, which is that the person be saved and be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Thus biblical love allows for loving correction when needed.
John shows us the source of genuine love and then draws an inevitable conclusion:
John states (4:7) that, “love is from God,” and then he goes farther and states (4:8) that, “God is love.” Of course, even unbelievers may demonstrate sacrificial love for others. Unbelieving parents often sacrificially love their children or their mates. Unbelieving soldiers may lay down their lives for their comrades. These loving deeds stem from God’s common grace.
While such love is caring and self-sacrificing, it never can be genuinely biblical, because unbelievers cannot seek the highest good of the one loved, namely, that the other person may come to saving faith and conformity to Christ. John wants us to know that whenever we see genuine biblical love, it did not originate with the person. It came from God. He is the only source of love in the world.
John goes even farther when he states, “God is love.” Almost everyone readily embraces that concept, but it is often misunderstood and taken to unbiblical extremes. Some misconstrue it to mean that because God is love, He overlooks or is tolerant toward sin. Some go so far as to say that because God is love, He could never condemn anyone to the eternal punishment of hell.
But the Bible is clear that God’s love does not negate His holiness and justice, or vice versa. In 1 John 1:5, the apostle stated, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” John also has said, “He is righteous” (2:29). God’s holiness and His love are both a part of His nature, and neither negates the other. In Revelation 20:15, the apostle of love writes about the final and eternal condemnation of all whose names were not found written in the book of life, that they were thrown into the lake of fire. So John did not see any contradiction between the concept that “God is love” and the concept of His punishment of the wicked in hell. So while it is vital that we affirm, “God is love,” it is also vital that we affirm, “God is holy,” and, “God is the righteous judge.”
We also need to think biblically about the statement, “God is love.” On the surface, it sounds simple, but when you begin to consider all that Scripture teaches on this, it gets rather difficult. D. A. Carson wrote a perceptive little book, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God [Crossway]. He points out (pp. 16-19) that the Bible speaks about God’s love in at least five different ways:
(1) The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father (John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31; 17:24). (2) God’s providential love over all that he has made. He cares for all of His creation, so that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without His permission. (3) God’s salvific stance toward his fallen world. God so loved the world that he gave His Son (John 3:16). Carson argues (p. 17, correctly, I think), “On this axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.” (4) God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect. Many passages in both the Old and New Testaments affirm this aspect of His love (Deut. 7:7-8; Rom. 9:13). (5) God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way—conditioned, that is, on obedience. Jesus tells us (John 14:21), “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”
I might add that, perhaps another aspect of Christ’s love was His special love for the apostle John, who refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23). Of course Jesus loved all of the disciples with a special love (John 13:1), but He loved John in a unique sense.
Carson goes on (pp. 21-24) to point out that if we do not recognize these various aspects of God’s love, and we make any one of them absolute, exclusive, or controlling all the others, we will get into difficulty. If all that we talk about is God’s love for the whole world, we end up with a God so weak that He can’t intervene to save us according to His sovereign purpose. On the other hand, if we only speak of God’s love for His elect, we will not be able to offer the gospel freely to sinners.
At the same time, Carson points out that we must not compartmentalize the various loves of God, as if they were each independent of the others. We must integrate these truths in biblical proportion and balance. And, he argues, we must be careful about various evangelical clichés. For example, to say that God’s love is unconditional is true if you are referring to His elective love, but it is not true with regard to His disciplining love of His people. A sinning Christian needs to understand that he abides in God’s love only when he obeys God.
So, the seemingly simple statement, “God is love,” is not quite so simple after all! But John wants us to know that the foundation for our love for one another is God, who is the source of love and whose very nature is love.
John states this both positively and negatively (4:7-8): “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God….” Some find significance in the fact that John does not repeat the phrase “is born of God” in the negative statement, but I do not. All that are born of God know God. The false teachers claimed to know God in a secret, deeper sense, but John is saying that they do not know God at all. They are not born again, because they do not practice biblical love. Their teaching and their behavior simply promoted self, not Christ.
John’s main application here is that children take on the characteristics of their parents. If we have been born of the God who is love, and thus have come to know Him, we will be growing in love. Or, the opposite is also true. The one who does not love shows that he does not know God.
We need to take this to heart in a serious way. There are many in evangelical churches that claim to be born again, but they do not love others and they do not even make an effort to do so. They are angry, unkind, impatient, abusive in their speech, self-centered in their daily lives, and judgmental of others. They spread malicious gossip with great delight, and they are defensive if you try to point out any of these sins to them. Of such people, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says (The Love of God [Crossway], p. 45), “Oh, my heart grieves and bleeds for them …; they are pronouncing and proclaiming that they are not born of God. They are outside the life of God; … there is no hope for such people unless they repent and turn to Him.” John’s first point is, because God is love, if we are His true children, then we must love one another.
John makes two points in verses 9-10:
John’s point here seems to be that we, as God’s born again children, are Exhibit A of His great love that sent His only begotten Son to this wicked world. “Only begotten” focuses on the uniqueness of Jesus in relationship to the Father. He alone is the eternal Son of God, who existed in the beginning with God (John 1:1). We who were rebels, dead in our sins, did not deserve to have Him come to this world to redeem us. Why did He come? To display or manifest His great love in us, to His glory (Eph. 1:3-12)!
John says that Jesus came to this world “so that we might live through Him.” Christianity is not primarily a matter of a person deciding to stop certain sinful practices and to start doing morally acceptable practices. It is not a matter of changing from being a non-religious person who spends Sundays for himself, to becoming a regular churchgoer. Rather, at its heart, Christianity is a matter of God imparting new life to those who are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-5). That new life manifests itself in loving behavior. As born again people who have experienced God’s love, we should display His love to this wicked world that crucified the Son of God.
So that we don’t get our focus on ourselves, or get puffed up with pride over how loving we are, John directs us back to God’s love as seen in His sending His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. “Propitiation” means to satisfy God’s justice and wrath toward our sin. His love didn’t just brush aside our sin, because His holiness and justice would have been compromised. Rather, His love moved God to send His own Son, who bore the penalty that we rightly deserved. The initiative was totally with God! He didn’t wait until we showed some promise of changing or until we cried out for help. Rather, as Paul put it (Rom. 5:8), “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Since God has so loved us, John’s conclusion is inescapable:
“Ought” implies obligation or commandment. That love can be commanded shows that it is not primarily a feeling, but rather an action based on commitment. As I said, love is not devoid of feeling, but it is not based on it. We must love others or we are being disobedient to God.
If everyone were easy to love, we wouldn’t need this powerful example of God’s love or this strong exhortation to love one another. The world loves those that love them. But Jesus commands us to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:43-47).
Implicit in what John is saying here is that we must love those who may not be especially lovable or easy to love. If I may speak hypothetically (I’m sure that no one can relate to this!), you may have a mate that is self-centered and difficult to live with. John says, “Beloved, if God so loved you, you also ought to love that difficult mate.” There may be people in this church whom you do not like. John says, “Beloved, if God so loved you, you also ought to love that difficult person.” It is in these difficult situations that God’s amazing love in Christ shines forth in us. If you’re having trouble loving someone, remember that God loved you while you were yet a sinner. He sent His Son to a world that is filled with sin. If you are His child through the new birth, then you must be the channel for His love to flow to those who may not be very lovable.
I read an amazing story that came out of the Korean War. A young Communist officer ordered the execution of a Christian civilian. When he learned that his prisoner was in charge of an orphanage and was doing much good in caring for small children, he decided to spare his life, but kill his son instead. The 19-year-old boy was shot in the presence of his father.
Later, when the tide of events changed, this same officer was captured, tried, and condemned to death for war crimes. But before the sentence could be carried out, the Christian father pleaded for the life of this Communist who had killed his son. He admitted that if justice were followed, this man should be executed. But since he was so young and blindly idealistic, he probably thought that his actions were right. “Give him to me,” he said, “and I’ll teach him about the Savior.”
They granted the request. That father took the murderer of his son into his own home. As a result of his self-sacrificing love, that Communist became a Christian pastor (“Our Daily Bread,” April, 1980).
Thankfully, most of us will never have to go through that kind of ordeal! But, if God so loved us, shouldn’t we work at loving one another in our homes and in this church, even when it is difficult?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Almost every Christian at some time has struggled with assurance of salvation. Perhaps you heard some godless university professor rail against the Christian faith, or you heard about a book or movie like The Da Vinci Code, and it caused you to doubt the truth of Christianity. Then the enemy hit you with the thought, “How could you be a genuine Christian and have these thoughts?”
Or, it may have been during a time of severe trial, where God did not seem to be answering your prayers. The difficulties in your life multiplied without relief. You cried out to God, but He seemed to be on vacation. You just couldn’t make sense out of what was happening to you. Then, you began to doubt both the Christian faith and whether you were really a Christian at all.
The enemy has many such ways to shake our assurance of salvation. In the case of John’s first readers, false teachers were spreading heresy among the churches. They had left to form new churches, and many had followed them. When your friends join a new group with new teachings, it can cause you to question whether what you believe is really true. So the apostle John writes to his little children to give them assurance that they were truly abiding in Christ. Note these verses:
2:3: “By this we know that we have come to know Him….”
2:5b: “By this we know that we are in Him….”
2:13: “… you know Him who has been from the beginning.”
2:13b: “… you know the Father.”
2:20: “… you all know.”
3:10: “By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious….”
3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life….”
3:19: “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him….”
3:24b: “We know by this that He abides in us….”
4:2: “By this you know the Spirit of God….”
4:6b: “By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
5:2: By this we know that we love the children of God….”
5:13: These things I have written … so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Clearly, John wants us to know some things with assurance. He wants us to be solid and secure in our relationship with God. In our text, he wants us (4:13) to “know that we abide in Him and He in us….” In 4:12, John mentions God’s abiding in us. Then in 4:13, 15, & 16, he repeats the same truth in terms of mutual abiding, God in us and we in God. John wants to give us assurance of this mutual abiding relationship.
While “abide” is John’s word for fellowship with God, it would be a mistake to think that only some believers enter into this abiding relationship, while other believers do not abide. To be sure, the abiding relationship grows and deepens over a lifetime. Those who have walked with Christ for decades enjoy closer fellowship with Him than those who are newer in their faith. But in John’s mind, every Christian abides in Christ and Christ in him. If you are not abiding in Him and He in you, then you are not saved. So when we talk about assurance of abiding, we are talking about assurance of salvation. John’s message here is…
We can be assured that God abides in us and we in Him if we see His Spirit producing in us love for one another and confession of the truth about Jesus Christ.
Some commentators put 4:12 with the preceding paragraph, but I am treating it with the following because of the theme of abiding. John’s statement (4:12) about God abiding in us and His love being perfected in us, serves as a topic sentence for 4:13-21. In 4:13-16, he discusses the abiding relationship; then in 4:17-21, he talks about God’s love being perfected in us.
At first glance, verse 12 seems out of context. John has been discussing God’s love for us and our love for one another. Then, somewhat abruptly, he states, “No one has seen God at any time.” You wonder, “Why did he throw that in here? What does God’s invisibility have to do with a discussion of love?” The same words occur in the prologue to John’s Gospel (John 1:18): “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” But here, John continues, “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” What does he mean?
He means that the unseen God, who was historically revealed in the incarnation of the Son, is now revealed by the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit in His people when they love one another. It’s an amazing thought! People do not see God and they may not read the Bible, but they do see and read the lives of Christians. They read your Christian home. They read this church. They read you as you interact with others at work or at school. If they see a remarkable, other-worldly love in those places—especially if they see love when they would expect retaliation—they see God abiding in you. If they see anger, bitterness, verbal attacks, and hatred, then we are failing to “testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (4:14).
A writer named Caecilius (ca. A.D. 210) said of the Christians, “They know one another by secret marks and signs, and they love one another almost before they know one another.” The Greek writer, Lucian (ca. A.D. 120-200) said of the early church, “It is incredible to see the fervor with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing. Their first legislator [Jesus] has put it into their heads that they are all brethren.” The church father, Tertullian, said, “It is our care for the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness, that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Look,’ they say, ‘How they love one another! Look how they are prepared to die for one another!’” I wonder how often outsiders would describe modern Christians like that?
John’s point (in 4:12) is that if we see God’s love surfacing in our relationships with others, then we have evidence of God’s abiding in us. This is especially true in situations where, if we were acting in the flesh, we would be indifferent at best or antagonistic or hateful at worst. When our knee-jerk reaction is to lash out at someone who has wronged us, but instead we feel an inner check and we speak in kindness, it is evidence that God is abiding in us. Although we cannot see God, who is spirit, we can see the evidence of His abiding in us when we love one another.
God’s Spirit is both the Spirit of truth (John 14:17) and the Spirit of love (Gal. 5:22). John has just spoken about love and he will go on to speak about the truth and love. As we saw last week, John does not separate truth from love or put love above the truth, so as to minimize or negate the truth. In verse 13, he is going to the source of love and truth in us, namely, God’s Spirit.
Note that John here does not say that God has given us His Spirit, although that is true. He says, “He has given us of His Spirit.” The Greek word means “out of.” Thus John is looking at something which God has imparted to us out of His Spirit, namely, truth (4:14-15) and love (4:16).
In John 3, when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth, He said (3:6-8),
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The Christian life is not only a matter of subscribing to certain doctrines, although it includes that. It is not merely a matter of stopping certain sinful practices and adding certain godly ones, although it does require that. At its root, Christianity is receiving new life from the Holy Spirit. At the moment that you are born of the Spirit, He comes to indwell you. Thus Paul writes (Rom. 8:9), “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.”
To come back to 1 John (4:13), the apostle says, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” You may wonder, “Is this just an inner, subjective feeling that the Holy Spirit is in me?” In the context, John is saying, “Don’t focus on subjective feelings. Look for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in your life.” You can’t see the wind, but you can see its effects. Do you see love? Do you believe and confess the truth about Jesus Christ? These are effects of the Holy Spirit in your life. These things show that God has given you of His Spirit. When you see them, you can know that you abide in Him and He in you.
We could list many other effects that God’s Spirit produces in believers (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Love of God [Crossway], pp. 97-101, develops these in some detail). Here are a few: Are you concerned about the things of God? Do you have a desire to experience more of Him? Do you love God’s Word? Do you have a sense of sin, so that you recognize that you are a sinner? Do you hate your sin and struggle daily against the flesh? This inner war between the flesh and the Spirit is a sign that you have the Holy Spirit within you (Gal. 5:17). Do you have a living relationship with God, where you see His hand at work in your life? Do you have the sense that you may come before God as your loving Father, not as your Judge? Do you find joy in using any spiritual gifts that He has given you in ministry to others?
John says (4:13), “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”
John first states the apostolic testimony about Christ (4:14) and then applies it to the one who confesses this truth (4:15).
When John writes, “We have seen and testify,” it takes us back to the beginning of this letter (1:1-3):
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.
John and the other apostles reported to us their eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ. The gospel is rooted in verifiable history, that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Jesus did not become the Son of God in the incarnation. He is the eternal Son of God, and He came to this earth because the Father sent Him to come and die to save us from our sins.
It is vital to affirm that the Christian faith does not rest on the philosophic speculations of some creative religious thinkers. It does not rest on inner, personal impressions or mystical visions. Recently in our local paper, a man wrote a letter to the editor in which he claimed that religious faith is simply a matter of personal, subjective experience. Thus there is no such thing as absolute truth in spiritual matters. One person’s experience is as good as another’s.
But if God really exists and if He has revealed Himself to us in His Son, it is false to say that one view is just as true as another. And, it is false to say that religious faith is just a blind leap in the dark. The Christian faith rests upon the historic, apostolic witness to the person of Jesus Christ. They became convinced that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about God’s promised Messiah. They saw His miracles, heard His teaching, and saw Him transfigured in glory on the mountain. Concerning that event, Peter declares (2 Pet. 1:16), “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The apostles also watched Jesus die on the cross, they saw Him risen from the dead, and they watched Him ascend into heaven. All of these events, John says, “we have seen.”
But, of course, these are more than historical notes of quaint interest. These momentous events have to do with Jesus being “the Savior of the world.” Savior implies that the world is lost and needs saving. It also implies that the world cannot save itself. It is helplessly, hopelessly lost. It needs more than reviving, because it is dead in its sins. The world refers to the evil system and people who are under Satan’s dominion, opposed to God. Thus it implies the wickedness of those who need saving. Jesus came to save sinners. It also looks at the wideness of God’s mercy in Christ. He did not come just to save a few Jews. His good news reaches to the uttermost parts of the world. Any sinner, no matter how wicked his life, may believe in Jesus as his Savior and receive eternal life as the gift of God’s grace and love.
John’s point here is that if you confess the apostolic testimony, that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who saves you from your sins, you didn’t come up with that idea yourself. The Spirit of God opened your eyes to see it. Thus your confession of Jesus Christ sent from God as the Savior of the world is evidence that God abides in you and you abide in God.
In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asked His disciples the most important question in the world. It is the most crucial question that you can answer personally: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the great answer (16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ replied (16:17), “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
That is John’s point here: If, in your heart, you truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sent by the Father to be the Savior of the world and that He is your Savior, you didn’t figure that out on your own. God revealed it to you by His Spirit. Your confession is evidence that God abides in you, and you abide in God.
Then John comes back to the theme of God’s love that he developed in 4:7-8:
It is important to know that John is not saying in these verses that the way to abide in God and have Him abide in us is to confess that Jesus is the Christ and to abide in love. Rather, he is saying that if we do these things, it is evidence of God’s abiding in us and us in Him. When John says, “We have come to know and have believed,” he uses a verb tense (the Greek perfect) that means, “We have come to know and believe in the past with continuing results in the present and future.” Faith is not a blind leap in the dark. It is based on knowledge. John and the apostles came to know and believe God’s love for them in the person of Jesus Christ and His voluntary sacrifice on the cross.
Then John repeats what he already said in 4:8: “God is love.” As we saw last week, He is not only love. He also is holy and righteous. His love never negates any other of His attributes, nor do those attributes negate His love. The supreme demonstration of God’s love is the cross, where He gave His only begotten Son to die in the place of sinners. There love and justice met and both were satisfied. God’s love was demonstrated to us as sinners. God’s justice was satisfied when Christ paid the penalty that we deserved.
John then concludes, “The one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” By “abides in love,” I think that he means both, “abides in God’s love” and “abides in love for others.” As we saw in 4:11, you cannot separate the two: “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” If you have come to know and believe God’s love for you, then you are under obligation to be the channel of His love to others, including those who do not deserve it. Remember, you didn’t deserve it either!
It is crucial that each of us be able to apply personally God’s love in Christ. The apostle Paul did. He wrote (Gal. 2:20), “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” That is John’s confession, “I have faith in the Son of God.” It also is John’s love, which God has for us: He “loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Can you say those things personally? “I believe in the Son of God. I have come to know and believe that He loved me and He gave Himself up for me.” If so, John says that it is evidence that you abide in God and God abides in you.
Some may still be thinking, “I do believe in Jesus as the Son of God and as my Savior, but I don’t have strong faith. I often have doubts. I do abide in His love and seek to be the channel of His love to others, but I often fall short. How can I have assurance that I abide in Him and He abides in me?”
As we’ve seen throughout 1 John, the issue is not perfection, but rather, direction. The important questions are, “What do you do when your faith wavers? Do you come before the Lord in confession, asking Him to strengthen your faith? What do you do when selfishness dominates your life, rather than God’s love? Do you grieve over your hardness of heart and ask God to fill you with His Spirit and to produce the fruit of His Spirit in you? Fruit is not an instant product. It takes time and cultivation. Faith and love take time to grow (Phil. 1:9; 2 Thess. 1:3).
John wants you to know that if these qualities are growing in you, you can be assured that God abides in you and you in Him. If you do not see faith and love growing in your life, then do as Isaiah (55:6-7) directs: “Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Of all of the important matters in life, none is more vital than the one that John mentions in verse 17—having confidence in the day of judgment. But we need to make sure that our confidence is based on biblical reasons, not on false hope. Polls show that at least 60 percent of Americans believe in hell, but only four percent think there’s a good chance that they will go there. Since we’re talking about eternity in the lake of fire, you need to be sure of where you stand! Since John tells us how to have confidence on that coming day, we all should pay close attention.
In the context, John is giving his final treatment of the test of love. As we’ve seen, John repeats three tests of authentic Christianity: the moral test of obedience to God’s commands; the social test of love for others; and, the doctrinal test of believing the truth about Jesus Christ.
In 4:7-11, John makes the point that we must love one another because God is love and He showed it by sending His Son as the propitiation for our sins. Then (4:12-16) John says that we can be assured that God abides in us and we in Him if we see His Spirit producing in us love for one another and confession of the truth about Jesus Christ.
But John knows that in the matter of loving others, it’s easy to be hypocrites. It’s easy to sing, “Oh, how I love Jesus,” while at the same time our homes are a battle zone. We put on our spiritual masks at church, but in our hearts we harbor bitterness toward a fellow Christian who has wronged us. So John once more hits this vital matter of practical love for one another. John is saying,
Love that comes from God gives us confidence in the day of judgment and must be expressed in love for others in obedience to God’s commandment.
By linking love to confidence in the day of judgment, John shows how important it is that we learn practically to love one another. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments reinforce just how important this matter of love should be to every Christian (The Love of God [Crossway], p. 172):
Not to be concerned about loving the brethren, not to be concerned as to whether I am dwelling in love or not, is to misunderstand the whole purpose of my salvation, and therefore it is to flout God’s love. If this is not the greatest concern of my life, then I am a mere beginner in the Christian life. At the beginning, of course, we have a very great concern about forgiveness; we are very concerned about certain particular sins which may have been evident in our lives before our conversion. But we must not stop at that. The hallmark of the saints is their great, increasing concern about the element of love in their lives.
John’s flow of thought here takes some effort to follow. “By this” (4:17) refers back to the last half of 4:16, “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” By abiding in God and His love, “love is perfected with us.” The result of this perfected love (I’ll explain that phrase in a moment) is that we will have confidence in the day of judgment. The basis for this confidence is our conformity to the character of Jesus Christ. Then, in 4:18, John gives the negative side of things: If we fear the day of judgment, it is evidence that we have not loved others as God intends. His love is not perfected in us.
Lest we become proud in thinking that we can love others on our own, John goes on to show (4:19) that God is the source of all love. Lest we fall into the hypocrisy of saying that we love God, when in fact we do not practice love for one another, John shows (4:20) that the test of whether we truly love God is our love for one another. He concludes (4:21) by showing that such love, the love that gives us confidence on the day of judgment, is not just a nice suggestion. Rather, it is God’s commandment.
John makes four points here:
From beginning to end, the Bible is clear that there is a coming day of judgment. Jesus spoke often about the judgment to come (e.g., Matt. 7:21-23; 11:21-24; 25:31-46). The apostle Paul, preaching to the philosophers in Athens, declared (Acts 17:31) that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” When he talked with the Roman governor Felix, Paul discussed “righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:25).
Death, which is common to the human race, is a judgment for our sin, but it is not the final judgment. Hebrews 9:27 declares, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment….” Hebrews goes on to describe it (10:27) as “a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.” The Revelation calls this “the second death, the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14). You can debate about whether the fire is literal or figurative, but either way, you don’t want to experience it for all eternity! You want to have a biblically based confidence as you face that certain day. John shows us here one such basis for confidence:
John’s emphasis here is on love being perfected in us. He first used that phrase in 2:5, where he said, “but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected.” He used it again in 4:12, “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.” In 4:13-16, John elaborates on the first part of that statement, repeating the concept of God’s abiding in us and we in Him three times. Now, he repeats three times (4:17, 18 [twice]) the concept of perfect love. What does he mean?
The Greek word translated “perfect” does not mean, as in English, to be without any flaws or shortcomings. Rather, the idea is to reach its complete development or intended goal, or to be mature. A helpful reference is James 2:22: “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” James means that works complete faith or bring faith to its intended goal.
So when John talks about God’s love being perfected in us, he means that His love has reached its intended goal in us. “Perfect” love is not just nice thoughts or words, but action (1 John 3:17-18). John Piper paraphrases the first clause of 4:17, “In this, that is in your love for each other, God’s love is put into action and so reaches its appointed goal. It does not remain at the imperfect stage of mere talk, but reaches the stage of action.”
So John is saying that when we see God’s love flowing through us to others in practical good deeds, it is one basis for confidence in the day of judgment. In this regard, he is saying essentially the same thing as he said in 3:14, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” The presence of God’s love in your life, not just in words, but in deeds, is evidence that His life is in you and that you are in Him. This is also what John meant in 4:12, “if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected [has reached its goal] in us.”
This does not mean that you always love everyone perfectly, without any shortcomings. No one does that! Rather, it means that the direction of your life is growth in love, and not just humanly explainable love, but rather, God’s love, which may be defined as, “a self-sacrificing, caring commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved.”
This implies that you are involved in close relationships with other believers, where you are committed to work through misunderstandings and hurt feelings. I often talk with people who are struggling in their Christian walk. I discover that they do not know any other believers well enough to meet regularly to help them work through their problems. To love one another, we must get to know one another and also be committed to work through difficulties in our relationships. When you see that kind of love increasing in your life, it gives you confidence in the day of judgment. John goes on to explain why this is so:
John adds (4:17b), “because as He is, so also are we in this world.” Commentators offer several different interpretations of that phrase, but in the context it seems to mean, as B. F. Westcott states (The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 158), “The ground of boldness is present likeness to Christ.” John Piper explains (ibid.),
The assumption is that at the judgment day God won’t condemn people who are like his Son. Living a life of active love shows that we have the Spirit of Jesus. It shows we belong to the family of God. And that gives us confidence before God. You can’t live at odds with the character of Jesus and then expect to have any confidence when you stand before his Father at the final judgment.
Note that John does not say, “so should we be,” but rather, “so are we in this world.” Each of us needs to ask, “Am I at all like Jesus?” Does my life display any resemblance to the love of Jesus in this world? Would others, especially those who live with me, say that they see the love of Christ in my daily behavior?
As I said, such love will not ever be an exact representation of Christ’s love, even in the most godly of saints. Love is a fruit of the Spirit, and fruit always takes time and nurture to grow. But, if there’s no evidence that the fruit is growing, we need to examine the root to find out if the whole tree is bad. As Jesus said (Matt. 12:33), “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” If you are not growing in love, you need to ask, “Am I truly born of God?” John goes on to examine the negative side of things:
John writes (4:18), “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” John is not saying that we should not fear God in the sense of regarding Him with respect and reverence. There is a proper sense of fearing God as the Judge. Speaking in the context of the final judgment, Jesus said (Luke 12:4-5), “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!”
But in our text, John means that you cannot draw near to God in love and run from Him out of fear of judgment at the same time. God wants His children to know that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). The phrase, “perfect love,” as we’ve seen, means, love that has reached its goal, or love that is expressed in action. If you still fear God’s judgment, at the very least, you are not practicing biblical love for others as you should be doing. That’s what John means when he says, “the one who fears is not perfected in love.”
All of us, at one point in life, should have experienced the fear of God’s judgment. But as you grow in grace and godliness, that fear is replaced by God’s love. The 18th century commentator, Bengel, gives the proper course of growth in the spiritual life: “neither love nor fear, fear without love, both fear and love, love without fear” (cited by Westcott in Latin, p. 160; translated in James Boice, The Epistles of John [Zondervan], p. 148).
Most unbelievers have neither the fear of God or the love of God in their lives. Often such lack of fear stems from ignorance. Children are often unafraid of danger because they are not aware of the severity of the danger. Concerning people in their natural state, Paul states (Rom. 3:18, citing Ps. 36:1), “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Unbelievers are a heartbeat away from eternity in the lake of fire, but they don’t fear God!
Then, as the Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin and judgment, they become terrified of God’s wrath and their guilt before Him. At this point, it is “fear without love.” God often uses this to drive them to the cross, where, still trembling, they experience both fear and love. Then, as they grow assured of His grace and see His love working itself out in their lives, they cast out fear and grow into love without fear. John Newton aptly put it, “’Twas grace that caused my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved” (“Amazing Grace,” stanza 2). So John’s point is that as God’s love grows in your life, it casts out the fear of judgment that existed before. God’s love flowing through you is evidence that you are born of God and that evidence removes the fear of God’s judgment.
But John knows that it is easy to get puffed up with pride or to fall into hypocrisy or excuses when it comes to the practical matter of loving others. He addresses these problems in 4:19-21:
John makes three points here:
Spurgeon has five different sermons on verse 19 alone, so I must be very incomplete here! The original almost certainly reads, “We love, because He first loved us.” (The KJV, “We love Him,” is based on later manuscripts that copyists altered.) John’s point in the context is that if we love God or others to any extent with genuine biblical love, we need to remember that such love did not originate with us. It came from God, who loved us while we were yet sinners. It is evidence that we have experienced His love in a saving way.
One practical application of verse 19 is, if you are struggling to love someone, especially someone who has wronged you, meditate on God’s love as it was shown to you at the cross. You did not deserve it in any way. On the contrary, you deserved His wrath and judgment. But in spite of all of your sins, Jesus willingly suffered the penalty that you should have received. Now He wants you to be the channel for His love to other sinners.
But, it’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that we love God, when in fact we do not. Thus, John continues,
As usual, John doesn’t mince words: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” As John Stott points out (p. 170), the apostle uses the word liar with reference to each of the three tests. With regard to the moral test, he said (2:4), “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” With regard to the doctrinal test, he said (2:22), “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Here, he applies it to the social test of love. Stott concludes, “However loudly we may affirm ourselves to be Christian, our habitual sin, denial of Christ and selfish hatred expose us as the liars we are.”
John’s argument is that we cannot separate the two great commandments. It is easier to say, “I love God,” because God is invisible and love for Him may be difficult to observe. But Jesus said (John 14:15), “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” His main commandment is that we love one another (John 13:34; 15:12). So John is saying that genuine love for God necessarily will show itself in observable love for others. If you don’t practice sacrificial, committed love for others, you are revealing that you do not really love God.
But John is not done. He knows that it is easy to make up excuses for our lack of love: “I’ve tried, but this person is impossible to love.” “If you knew how difficult this person is, you’d understand why I don’t love him.” So he shows,
The Bible calls them the two great commandments (Matt. 22:36-40), not “the two great suggestions, if you’d maybe like to give it a try.” John reminds us that the commandment comes directly from God (see also, 3:23). This means that we are not free to shrug it off if we claim to be Christians. The fact that love can be commanded shows that it is not primarily a feeling, but rather an action: a caring, self-sacrificing commitment that shows itself in seeking the highest good of the one loved. By God’s grace and in dependence on the Holy Spirit, you can and must practice such love, even toward those who are difficult to love.
The fact that God commands us to love shows that it is not always effortless or easy. If love just gushed out of us like a mountain spring, then John wouldn’t have labored the point as much as he does. Some of you have experienced deep wounds from those who profess to be Christians. I’m not saying that loving them will be easy, but I am saying that it is not optional. God gave us this commandment, and He didn’t attach a list of exceptions for difficult cases.
An 11 year-old girl and her 8 year-old brother fought over the slightest thing. So their father was surprised when the girl made an artistic card for her brother’s birthday. Inside she wrote, “Happy birthday to my nine-year-old brother. I am so glad to have a brother to love. So God gave me you. P.S. Don’t read this out loud or I will twist your head off.” (Reader’s Digest [Jan., 1999], p. 78.)
Well, she’s got a ways to go, but at least she’s working at loving her brother! I encourage you to work at it with those you live with and with those in this church. Remember, the payoff for obedience to this command is that you will have confidence before God in the day of judgment.
Our primary source of confidence is that we have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and His shed blood as the propitiation for our sins. It is only His blood, not our works, that atones for sins. But, how do we know that our faith in Christ is genuine, since it is easy to be deceived? One evidence of genuine faith is when we see God’s love flowing through us to others, especially to others that we would not naturally love. The more you see God’s love surfacing in your life, the more you will “have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming” (2:28).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Pollster George Barna classifies the born-again as all who say “they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today,” and who also indicate that they “believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior” (The Barna Update [3/5/2001], cited by Ron Sider, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience [Baker], p. 18). By those criteria, anywhere from 35 to 43 percent of the U.S. population claims to be born again.
At first glance, those numbers might cause us to rejoice. But, as evangelical theologian Michael Horton laments, “Gallup and Barna hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general” (Modern Reformation [May-June, 1993], cited by Sider, p. 13).
Even among pastors, Leadership journal (Winter, 1988, p. 24) found that 20 percent viewed pornographic material at least once a month, and that was before the Internet was invented! Another survey from the same year found that only 64 percent of evangelical seminarians thought that watching pornographic movies is morally wrong (David Wells, Christianity Today [1/15/1988], p. 25).
Jesus warned that there will be many who call Him “Lord” who even have done miracles in His name, but at the judgment He will say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). In light of these things, we all need to be clear about whether we truly have been born again or not.
Every parent knows the great joy of seeing a new life come into this world. Some parents must go through the pain and sorrow of having a stillborn baby. The difference consists in that one quality, which even modern medicine cannot impart—life. In the spiritual realm, as in the physical, new life means everything! If a person is truly born of God, there will be signs of life. If those signs are missing, there is cause for great alarm.
As the apostle John moves toward the conclusion of this letter, he brings together into one paragraph the three tests of authentic Christianity that he has repeated throughout the book. He does this to summarize and to show that these three tests are part of an interwoven fabric. They all depend on the new birth as their foundation. We may view them as three vital signs of the new birth. If a person has truly received new life from God, these vital signs will be evident. While they grow stronger over time, if there is no evidence of these signs, a person needs to examine whether or not he truly has been born again. John shows that…
The vital signs of the new birth are faith in Jesus Christ, love for others, and obedience to God’s commandments.
John’s line of thought is not easy to outline here, in that he seems to intertwine ideas. John Stott (The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], p. 172) says, “What he [John] is at pains to show is the essential unity of his threefold thesis…. The real link between the three tests is seen to be the new birth. Faith, love and obedience are the natural growth which follows a birth from above, …” So we will look first at the new birth and then at the three tests.
John mentions being “born of God” in verses 1 & 4. The new birth must be the starting point of any relationship with God. You can go to church all your life, you can be religious and moral, and you can tithe your money to the church. But none of that will get you into heaven. Jesus told Nicodemus, who was a very religious and moral man (John 3:3), “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He underscored again (John 3:7), “You must be born again.”
You can dress up a corpse in the finest of clothes, but it is still a corpse. What it needs is life. Spiritually, before we are born again, we are all dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). All of the finest religious clothes in the world will not help that corpse. What we need is new life that only God can impart. We cannot attain to this new life by our own efforts. It is not a matter of trying harder, of cleaning up your life with New Year’s resolutions, of going to church more often, or anything else that you can do.
Rather, the initiative and the power lie with God. Jesus said (John 5:21), “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” That was true of Jesus’ miracles of raising the physically dead back to life. But it is also true spiritually, that the Lord Jesus gives life to whom He wishes. God is the sovereign over our salvation.
The apostle Peter exclaims (1 Pet. 1:3), “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Or, as Paul puts it (Eph. 2:4-5), “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)….”
Regeneration (or the new birth) is totally a work of God. We cannot play an active role at all, in that we are spiritually dead. Many mistakenly think that being born again is a matter of our “free will” or choice. Certainly, we must choose to trust in Christ (John 1:12). But the question is, how can a dead sinner do that? John 1:13 states, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Just as none of us had any say in whether we would be born physically, neither did we determine that we would be born spiritually. It is entirely a work of God according to His sovereign will. (For more, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan], pp. 699-706.) In other words, the Bible teaches that the reason you choose to trust Christ is that God has quickened you from the dead. Otherwise, no one could or would choose to trust in Christ. The new birth is essential.
John both begins and ends this section with an emphasis on faith in Jesus Christ. Note three things:
For some reason, even the New American Standard Bible, which is usually quite literal, obscures the sense of the Greek verb in verse 1. The English Standard Version translates correctly, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God….” The Greek verb (perfect tense) indicates an action that took place in the past with continuing results in the present and future. In other words, John is emphasizing that faith is the result or evidence of the new birth, not the cause of it. A person who has been born of God in the past will be characterized by ongoing faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. So one way that you can tell if you’ve been born again is to answer the question, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God?”
Many evangelicals object to the teaching that regeneration precedes saving faith. (By precedes, I mean logically as the cause, not chronologically. Chronologically, faith occurs immediately after regeneration.) Critics say, “How can God (or preachers) call upon people to believe in Christ as Savior if they cannot believe?” So they make faith the means of regeneration, rather than the result.
But I would counter, how could Jesus command a dead man, “Lazarus, come forth” (John 11:43)? Isn’t it futile to command a dead man to do anything? Yes, unless it is the will of Jesus to raise him from the dead! Then, with the command, God imparts the power of new life, so that Lazarus can obey the command. Lazarus’ coming forth is clear evidence that he had already received new life from God. Faith is the evident result of the new birth, not the cause of it.
Faith in faith itself or faith in some vague, “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows,” is not saving faith. Saving faith believes in the person of Jesus. Specifically it believes that He is the Christ (5:1), the Son of God (5:5). To believe that Jesus is the Christ means that the historic person, Jesus of Nazareth, is God’s Anointed One (or Messiah), the one promised and prophesied of in the Old Testament. He is the one who would “save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
To believe that Jesus is the Son of God means that He is the eternal God, the second person of the Trinity, in human flesh. The Jews of Jesus’ day clearly understood that His references to Himself as the Son of God were a claim to deity. When Jesus stated (John 5:17), “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working,” the Jews sought to stone Him because (5:18) He was “calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” Jesus responded to these charges, not by correcting their understanding as being wrong, but by affirming His equality with God (John 5:19-47). John (20:31) affirms that the purpose of his gospel was “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
To believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, means that you entrust your eternal destiny and your right standing before God not to anything in yourself, including your faith, but entirely to Jesus and His substitutionary death on the cross for your sins. You believe that He paid the debt to God that you owe. Your faith rests completely upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Three times John mentions “overcoming the world.” “World” refers to the evil, organized system under Satan’s dominion that is opposed to God and His purposes. Bishop Westcott (The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 179) says that the term “gathers up the sum of all the limited, transitory powers opposed to God which make obedience difficult.”
The Greek noun for “victory” (nike) is the same root as the verb for “overcome.” These are terms for warfare or battle. The Christian life is armed combat against the enemy of our souls. John uses two different verb tenses here. “Overcomes” (5:4a, 5a) is present tense, indicating ongoing, repeated victories over worldly powers and influences. But “has overcome” (5:4b) is the Greek aorist tense, which may be taken several ways. It may look at the overall result as a whole, showing that the normal Christian life is one of overcoming the enemy (constative or gnomic aorist). Or, it could point to the position of victory that we inherit in Christ. Or, it could indicate John’s readers’ decisive rejection of the false teachers and their damnable doctrines.
The emphasis is not on our faith, but on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ. John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 255) puts it, “faith receives from another that by which it overcomes.” He says that if we put the emphasis on our faith, we “take away from God what is his own.” He adds (p. 256), “For by faith he means a real apprehension of Christ, or an effectual laying hold on him, by which we apply his power to ourselves.”
John’s point is that the faith that God imparts to us in the new birth results in a life of consistent victory over the evil forces of this world. While none of us will be completely untainted by worldly influences or values in this life, John’s point here is the same one he made in 2:15, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Those who are born of God should consistently and progressively overcome the world.
Thus the new birth is the basis of the Christian life. Faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, is a vital sign of the new birth.
I am not going to spend much time here, since we just studied it (4:7-21). John’s point here is the same as there, that love for God and love for His children are inextricably bound together. If you love the Father, you will love the child born of Him (5:1). You can’t divorce the first and the second great commandments.
Also, love for God and His children is primarily volitional, not emotional. Love for God is expressed by keeping His commandments (5:3). Loving God’s children is seen when we love God and keep His commandments (5:2). While you should have feelings of love for God and for His children, feelings are not the basis of such love. As we’ve seen, biblical love is primarily a self-sacrificing commitment to seek the other person’s highest good.
At first, it sounds as if John is reasoning in a circle here. In 4:20, he said that you can’t love God if you don’t love your brother. But in 5:2, he states that you can know that you love your brother when you love God. How do we sort this out?
First, John is at pains to show that you cannot divorce love for God from love for your brother, and vice versa. One clear application of verse 1 is that we must love all that have truly been born of God. If there is evidence that a person is a child of God through the new birth, then he is my brother, even if I disagree with him about certain doctrinal matters. I must accept him, just as Christ accepted me (Rom. 15:7). While we may need to draw more narrow lines when it comes to laboring together in the gospel, we should not draw those lines when it comes to love.
Second, John may be saying (in 5:2) that our motive for loving the children of God should be genuine love for God in obedience to His commandments. In other words, the reason we love others should not be natural factors, whether in them or in us. Rather, we are doing it to please God in obedience to His Word.
Third, in 5:2 John may mean that genuine love for others must be defined by obedience to God’s commandments, not by cultural definitions of love. For example, our culture would say that if a brother falls into serious sin, the loving thing to do is to be nice and overlook his sin. To call it sin or try to correct the sinner would be judgmental and unloving. But to show genuine love to a sinning brother, we must love God and obey His commandments. This means going to the sinner in love to try to get him to repent. It means showing him that Jesus Christ is ready to forgive and give victory over this sin. Anything less than this is not biblical love, either for God or for the sinning believer.
Thus the vital signs of the new birth are faith in Jesus Christ and love for others. Finally,
John uses the word “commandments” three times. As we’ve seen, John is not saying that believers obey God perfectly. Rather, he is looking at the overall direction of our lives. A Christian’s life should be marked by obedience out of a heart of love for God. When a child of God sins, he confesses his sin so that he can be restored to fellowship with God (1:9; 2:1). The person who claims to be born again, but who is not concerned about a lifestyle of disobedience to God’s Word, should examine himself to see if he really is in the faith (1 John 3:4-10; 2 Cor. 13:5).
John adds an uplifting word at the end of verse 3: “and His commandments are not burdensome.” He does not mean that obedience to God’s commandments is always easy or effortless. The warfare terminology of “overcoming” and “victory” shows that obedience is often a battle. The world, the flesh, and the devil are formidable foes that we must constantly fight against. So in what sense are God’s commandments not burdensome?
First, God’s commandments are not burdensome because we have a new nature that has the power to obey. That is the implication of “for” at the beginning of verse 4. (Some versions put a comma or semicolon at the end of 5:3, rather than a period.) God’s commandments are not burdensome because “whatever is born of God overcomes the world.” “Whatever” is a neuter in Greek, which probably focuses on our new nature that overcomes the world. Thus John emphasizes not “the victorious person,” but “the victorious power.” “It is not the man, but his birth from God, which conquers” (Alfred Plummer, cited by Stott, p. 174).
Second, God’s commandments are not burdensome because they are the commands of God, not of man. The commandments of men are burdensome. Invariably they stem from an attempt to earn standing with God or status before men through a system of human works. The Pharisees had added their commandments to God’s commands, but Jesus called them “heavy burdens” (Matt. 23:4). Even God’s law, apart from the grace of Christ, was a heavy yoke that no one could bear (Acts 15:10; Gal. 5:1). But, God’s commandments come from an all-wise heavenly Father, designed for our good. Our gentle Savior said, “My yoke is easy and My load is light” (Matt. 11:30).
Third, God’s commandments are not burdensome because they are given and received in the context of love. A loving father does not tell his child to stay away from a busy street because he wants to take away his fun, but because he loves him and wants to protect him from injury or death. An immature child may think that his father’s commandment is restrictive, but he needs to trust his father’s love and obey anyway.
An immature believer may view God’s commands as restrictive. But our heavenly Father knows that sin will damage and destroy us. If we have come to know His love in Christ through the new birth, then we must trust His love and obey His commandments. When we see that God’s commands stem from His love for us as His children, they are not burdensome.
The very first test given to a in the delivery room is called the Apgar score. The test was designed to quickly evaluate a newborn’s physical condition after delivery and to determine any immediate need for extra medical or emergency care. It measures things like muscle tone, heart rate, reflexes, skin color, and breathing rate.
Our second daughter came out of the womb with blue skin, and I was very alarmed. The doctor calmly cleaned the mucus out of her nose, and in a minute she was pink and crying. She didn’t get a very high Apgar score, but thankfully, she was alive. If she had not started breathing, we would have been overwhelmed with grief, not filled with joy. The vital signs of birth are essential!
A true child of God will have a spiritual Apgar score. We could probably come up with more, but John gives us three vital signs of the new birth: faith in Jesus Christ, love for others, and obedience to God’s commandments. If you claim to be born again, you may want to check your spiritual Apgar score. If the vital signs of new life in Christ are not there, you need to get down on your knees and plead with God to cause you “to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Skeptics frequently allege that Christian conversion is merely a psychological phenomenon that can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. In this view, conversion to Christ is a purely subjective experience. It’s nice if it works for you, but you shouldn’t try to impose it on everyone else or say that those who do not believe as you do are wrong.
If you say that Jesus Christ changed your life, the skeptic will reply, “That’s great for you, but it doesn’t prove that Christianity is true for everyone else. Buddhism changed Richard Gere’s life. Scientology changed Tom Cruise’s life. Cabalistic Judaism seems to have changed Madonna’s life. So if you want to look at changed lives, there is plenty of evidence that Christianity is not the only religious truth out there.”
How do you counter such arguments? There is value in subjective, inner assurance of the truth of the gospel for believers. But we need a more sure foundation for our faith than our subjective experience alone provides.
Throughout 1 John, the apostle has been addressing the matter of authentic Christianity. False teachers had caused confusion in the church and had left, taking a number of people with them. They claimed to have secret knowledge about Jesus Christ, but their teaching contradicted the apostolic witness to Christ. John repeatedly shows that authentic Christians believe the truth about Jesus Christ, they obey God’s commandments, and they love one another. He began the letter by affirming the certainty of what the apostles knew about Jesus Christ (1:1-3):
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His son Jesus Christ.
John wasn’t relaying some inner, subjective vision or philosophy. He was telling about his objective experience with Jesus Christ. You can’t get much more objective than seeing, hearing, and touching! Jesus Christ is God’s witness to us through the apostles who spent three years with Him. In our text, John comes back to this objective witness with which he opened this letter. He wants us to have a sure foundation for our faith. Authentic Christian faith rests on God’s testimony to the person of Jesus Christ.
Believing God’s trustworthy witness to His Son gives us a sure foundation for our faith.
In 5:6-9, John shows that God has given a trustworthy threefold witness to His Son. Then in 5:10-13, he shows that believing God’s witness to His Son gives us a sure foundation for our faith, with the aim (5:13) “that you may know that you have eternal life.”
Regarding verses 6-8, Martyn Lloyd-Jones states (Life in God [Crossway], p. 68), “Now there can be no question at all but that these three verses are not only the most difficult verses in this epistle, but I think … that they are the three most difficult verses, in a sense, in the entire Bible!” I could find other verses that are much more difficult than these, such as Hebrews 6:4-6! But his point is well taken, that these are difficult verses. First, we must deal with the textual problem and then, with the interpretive problem.
The Textual Problem: The textual problem is that the New King James Version (and the KJV) reads as follows (5:7-8): “For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.” It is certain that the phrase beginning with “in heaven” (5:7) through “on earth” are not a part of John’s original letter and should be omitted. There are no Greek manuscripts with this additional phrase before the 15th century. It comes from a marginal comment that was incorporated into the text of an Old Latin 5th century manuscript. (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], pp. 129-130 gives a full account of this.) The original text is accurately represented in the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, and the New International Version.
The Interpretive Problem: The more difficult problem is to determine what John means by his reference to “the water and the blood” (5:6) and to “the Spirit and the water and the blood” (5:8). It is certain that John is establishing the historical factualness of the incarnation and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and citing God’s testimony to substantiate it. In Jewish thought, a point is confirmed in a court of law by the testimony of two or three witnesses. John here brings forth three witnesses that agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He also seems to be refuting the false teachers by using expressions that were already familiar to his readers, but which are not so readily understood by us. Hence the difficulty of interpreting these verses.
There have been four main interpretations (On views 1, 2, & 4, I’m following John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], pp. 177-178; I think he misrepresents Calvin’s view, as does James Boice, The Epistles of John [Zondervan], p. 163). (1) Some understand the water and the blood as a symbolic reference to the sacraments of baptism and communion. This was Luther’s view and several commentators say that it was Calvin’s view. But it is not Calvin’s view, which I will explain in a moment. This view is unlikely for two reasons. First, while water may well stand for baptism, blood would be an unusual symbol for the Lord’s Supper. John would not likely omit a reference to Christ’s body if he meant the Lord’s Supper. Second, John says that Jesus came by water and blood, which points to His past historical coming, not to any ongoing spiritual coming through the sacraments.
(2) Some link this passage with John 19:34-35, where John testifies to the blood and water that flowed from the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Augustine and some other ancient commentators held this view. At first glance it seems logical since John wrote both passages. Both texts emphasize the water and the blood, and both emphasize the idea of testimony.
But the similarities are not so close upon further examination. In 1 John, Jesus came by water and blood, whereas in the Gospel, it was blood and water that came out of Jesus. In 1 John, the water and blood bear witness to Jesus, whereas in the Gospel, John bears witness to the blood and water. In 1 John, the water and blood seem to bear witness to Jesus’ divine-human person, whereas in the Gospel, the blood and water bear witness to Jesus’ human death, and perhaps to the salvation provided by it.
(3) A third approach is that of John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 256-257). C. H. Spurgeon seems to have followed Calvin here (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Ages Software], sermon 3252, “By Water and by Blood”). Calvin viewed the terms as referring to the Old Testament rites of purification and blood sacrifice, which Jesus Christ fulfilled in His earthly ministry. Thus, as Spurgeon explains (ibid.), “By the terms ‘water’ and ‘blood’ we understand the purifying and the pardoning effects of Christ’s work for his people.”
While this is true on a secondary level, I do not think that it is John’s primary meaning. He is setting forth facts that establish God’s testimony to the person and work of Jesus Christ as historically revealed. While Jesus’ person and work do cleanse us from sin and pardon us, those are not the historic facts to which John is directing his readers in order to refute the heretics.
(4) Thus the most satisfactory interpretation takes water as a reference to Jesus’ baptism (at the outset of His earthly ministry) and blood as a reference to His death on the cross. This was Tertullian’s view (c. 160/170-c. 215/220). It is the best view because in the context, John is emphasizing the historical foundations of the faith. Both His baptism and the cross are historic experiences that bear witness to Jesus’ divine-human person. At each of these events, the Father intervened in a miraculous way to bear testimony to His Son. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended on Him as a dove and the voice from heaven declared (Matt. 3:17), “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.” At His crucifixion, the sky was darkened, the earth quaked, numerous resurrections took place, and the veil in the Temple was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51-53).
This interpretation also fits with what we know of the historical setting of 1 John. The Cerenthian Gnostics, whom John refutes throughout the letter, taught that Jesus was a mere man upon whom “the Christ” descended at His baptism and from whom “the Christ” departed before His death. These false teachers could not conceive of how a divine Savior could have died on the cross. To refute this serious heresy, John shows that Jesus was the Christ (God’s Anointed) before His baptism, where that fact was authenticated by the Spirit. “Came” implies that He came to earth from heaven. Since the Gnostics agreed that Jesus was the Christ at His baptism, John adds (5:6b), “not with the water only, but with the water and the blood.” This is to say that He was the Christ during and after His crucifixion.
Then John adds (5:6c-8): “It is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.” As mentioned, the Holy Spirit bore witness to Jesus at His baptism and at His death. Spurgeon (ibid., “The Three Witnesses,” #1187, p. 552) points out that in Leviticus 8, when the priests were consecrated, they were washed with water, anointed with oil (a type of the Holy Spirit), and the blood of a sacrificial ram was applied to their ear, thumb, and toe. Even so, Jesus our great High Priest was washed with water at His baptism, anointed by the Spirit, and offered His own blood as the final and sufficient sacrifice for our sins.
John’s point here is that God has borne witness to His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Spirit of truth bore witness to Jesus at His baptism, when He identified with sinners, although He Himself did not need to be cleansed. He testified of Jesus throughout His earthly ministry, through His miracles, His teaching, and His obedient life. He bore witness to Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, initially through John the Baptist’s witness (John 1:29), but supremely at the cross. He confirmed that witness through the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead (Rom. 1:4). The Spirit bore further witness when, in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise, He descended on the church at the Day of Pentecost. He further affirmed the witness to Jesus through the miracles that the apostles performed. We have that witness in the New Testament.
Thus John’s point is that God’s threefold witness to His Son—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—is trustworthy. In a court of law, truth is established when numerous witnesses say the same thing and when those witnesses are shown to have credible character. John shows us that the three witnesses all agree, and they are not just the testimony of men, but of God Himself.
Thus John argues (5:9), “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son.” Every day we trust the testimony of fallen men, who are fallible at best. We could not deposit money in a bank, ride in a car, buy food at the grocery store, take an aspirin for a headache, or do any of the many things we do in our daily lives if we did not trust the witness of men. John is saying, “If you trust in men every day, can’t you trust what God has testified concerning His Son?”
If you’re not familiar with God’s testimony, you can read it in the New Testament. Be careful, though, to read it prayerfully and with a submissive, searching heart, asking God to open your eyes to His truth. If you come at it as a proud skeptic, demanding proof, you will come away empty, because God is not in the business of giving proof to proud sinners. If you come at it with preconceived notions of what the Savior should be like, you are likely to miss Him, because He is not a Jesus who fits your every desire and whim. You can’t make up a Jesus of your own liking. You must accept God’s testimony to the Jesus of the Bible.
The Jews of Jesus’ day, including the disciples, couldn’t conceive of a Messiah who would suffer and die, even though Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, along with the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, clearly predicted such. The risen Lord Jesus pointed out to the men on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:25-26), “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Luke adds (24:27), “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” The Scriptures give us God’s clear testimony of His Son.
What should we do with this testimony? Clearly, we must receive it or believe it personally. If we do not believe it, as John shows (5:10), we make God a liar. If we do receive it, we have a sure foundation for our faith:
John outlines three benefits of believing God’s testimony to His Son and one danger of disbelieving that testimony.
If we believe in Jesus as the Son of God, we have the testimony in ourselves. John is referring to the inner witness of the Spirit to the truth regarding Jesus Christ. The external witness is the objective testimony of the New Testament, through the apostles, to the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. That is the primary foundation that shows that Christianity is not merely psychological. But, when you believe that testimony about Christ, as we saw in our last study, it is because God has changed your heart. You have become a new creature in Him. You were dead in your sins, but now you are alive to God in Christ. You were blind to the truth of God’s Word, but now you see. You were a rebellious God-hater, but now you are an obedient God-lover. When you believe, you have this inner witness in yourself.
But the one who rejects God’s testimony to His Son through unbelief makes God to be a liar, which is a serious matter! None of us likes to be called a liar, especially in the context of trying to help someone. If I offered a street person a check for $100 and he grabbed me by the lapel and said, “Prove to me that this check is good,” I’d have good reason to take my check back and leave him to his misery. If he ripped my check in two and threw it back at me, he would not experience the blessing I offered him.
If a critic angrily says, “Prove to me that Jesus is the Son of God and I’ll believe,” he is doing far worse than tearing up my check. He is calling the only true God a liar. He is trampling on the gift of God’s Son, who would forgive all his sins if he would receive Him. God has given more than sufficient testimony to His Son. If you receive that external testimony, God will give you the additional inner testimony that He is true. If you reject His external testimony, you will also lack the internal witness.
John sums up God’s testimony (5:11-12): “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” These important verses emphasize several vital truths:
First, eternal life is God’s gift, not something we gain through our good works or efforts. It does not require some special secret knowledge, as the heretics taught. Like any gift, you must know about it (in this case, God has testified about it) and you must receive it. If you have to earn it, it’s not a gift.
Second, God’s gift is eternal life. Nothing could be a greater gift! Because of our sins, we were spiritually dead, alienated from the life of God. God gives us as our present possession, not only unending life, but also His very life. He is the author of life. Jesus promised that if we believe in Him, we shall live even if we die, and that everyone who lives and believes in Him will never die (John 11:25-26). In other words, physical death will not rob us of this eternal life with God.
Third, Jesus Christ is everything. If you have Him, you have eternal life. If you don’t have Him, you do not have the life. As someone has said, “Christianity is Christ!” All of God’s promises are yes in Him (2 Cor. 1:20). All that God offers us, He offers in Jesus Christ. He is the only sure, solid foundation for your faith. The most important question in the world is the one Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Peter’s answer, inspired by God, is the only correct one (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Do you believe this testimony that God has given about His Son? If so, you have eternal life. If not, you do not have the life and you will perish if you do not repent and believe!
“These things” refer to the entire letter. John has written this letter so that his little children will not be unsettled by the false teachers. If they believe in the name (= person) of the Son of God, then they may know that they have eternal life. John doesn’t want us to hope so, but to know so. You can know because God’s testimony about His Son is trustworthy. Your faith must rest in Jesus Christ alone, not in anything or anyone else. If your faith is in Christ, then you have the inner witness of His Spirit, that you are a child of God. You have the evidence in your life that He has changed your heart. You now believe the truth about Jesus. You obey God’s commandments. You love God and others.
John’s gospel (John 20:31) was “written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” His first epistle was written so that you who already believe in the name of the Son of God would not be shaken by false teaching, but rather, “so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
If you don’t know whether or not you have eternal life, nothing is more important than to make sure. Go back and read again God’s testimony to His Son in the gospels. See the witness of the Spirit throughout the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. God’s testimony to Jesus is the foundation of our faith. Christianity is not just a psychological experience. It rests on this solid witness.
But, then, you must believe God’s testimony about His Son. If you’re neutral or ambivalent about it, you are not believing it. Worse, you’re calling God a liar. John Stott writes (p. 182), “Unbelief is not a misfortune to be pitied; it is a sin to be deplored. Its sinfulness lies in the fact that it contradicts the word of the one true God and thus attributes falsehood to Him.” Repent of your unbelief, of the audacity of calling the God of truth a liar. Accept His testimony to His Son and receive as a gift the eternal life that only the living God can impart.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Last week I cited Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who viewed 1 John 5:6-8 as the three most difficult verses in 1 John, and perhaps in the entire Bible. I find our current text far more difficult to understand than those verses! In verses 14 & 15, I struggle to understand how the promise really applies, because frankly, it does not line up with my experience. In verse 16, I struggle to understand the exact meaning of the “sin unto death,” and thus I’m not sure how to apply this to my prayer life.
So today I face a difficult task. I’m sure that John wrote these verses to encourage us to pray, and so I want to encourage you to pray more faithfully. God is a prayer-hearing God (Ps. 65:2). But at the same time, I can’t gloss over the tremendous difficulty that our text creates for my prayer life. It is simply not true to my experience. John, who is echoing here the repeated promises of Jesus (Mark 11:22-24; John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:24), says that if we ask anything according to God’s will, He will answer favorably. “No” is not an acceptable answer. It must be “yes” every time!
Over the years, my “prayer batting average” is pretty low. I have prayed for the salvation of people who have not gotten saved. I have prayed for the restoration of sinning Christians, who have not repented and been restored. I have prayed for the reconciliation of many Christian marriages that have broken up. Some try to get God off the hook by saying, “He gives people free will.” But if God cannot subdue a sinful person’s will, then He can’t do anything! That means that sinful man, not God, is sovereign! And it means that prayer is useless and impotent. If God promises to answer our prayers, then He has the power to answer them!
I’m sure that the fault is with me, not with God’s promise! I am probably lacking in understanding God’s perfect will and lacking in faith. But I could not find any preachers on this text who admit to having the difficulties that I have. So this has not been an easy message to prepare, because if I’m honest, I have to expose my own failures in prayer to you! My prayer has been that perhaps by sharing my struggles, you will be motivated to keep “swinging” in your prayer life. Maybe we’ll all improve our batting averages!
Verse 14 is closely connected with verse 13 (The Greek text opens with the word, “And”). Confidence in prayer is founded on the assurance that you have eternal life. If you do not have eternal life, there is no way that you can pray according to the will of God, except to pray that God would save you from your sins. The promise of our text is only for God’s children. The promise is:
As believers we have confidence that God will answer our prayers, if we pray carefully according to His will.
Our text falls into two sections. First (5:14-15), John states the general principle, which has both a promise and a qualification. Then (5:16-17), he gives a specific example of how we should apply the promise, and again he gives a promise and a qualification. In each section, we have to grapple with a difficult problem.
John has already brought up this idea of having confidence in prayer and of a promise of answered prayer, if we are obedient to God (3:21-22). Here, he repeats it for emphasis. Prayer is not optional for God’s children. It is absolutely essential, because if you do not pray, you are not living by faith in God. If you do not pray, you are trusting in yourself, which is exactly how the world lives. Note five things about this prayer promise:
Our confidence is never in ourselves, but rather in Christ. After reminding us of our sympathetic high priest, the author of Hebrews states (4:16), “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (see also, Eph. 3:12). Our confidence is never in anything in ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ, whose blood gives us access to the very throne of God.
We have confidence before Him (5:14). Prayer is not just mumbling through a list or repeating some rote formula. Prayer is coming before the living God, humbling ourselves in His presence. If we have not come before God, we haven’t prayed.
As James (4:2) pointedly reminds us, “You do not have because you do not ask.” He adds (4:3), “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” We need to be sure to ask (not assume), but we need to ask with the proper motives, that our requests would further God’s purpose and glory.
I’ll deal with the condition in a moment, but for now I’m focusing on the promise that He hears us. Since God hears everything and even knows the unspoken secrets of our hearts, John means that He hears us favorably by coming to our aid. I’ve been at church gatherings where many children were playing as the adults sat eating or talking. Suddenly one mother jumped up and ran for her child. Why? Because she heard his cry. None of the other parents heard the cry, or if they did, they knew that it was not their child. But the mother knows the cry of her own child, and she responds to his need. Our heavenly Father knows the cry of His children. He hears our prayers.
The idea of verse 15 is that we know that we presently have whatever we have asked in accord with His will. We may not actually see it for many years, but it’s as good as done. Abraham prayed for a son and God promised to give him that son. But it was 25 years before Abraham held Isaac in his arms. There is much in Scripture about waiting on God. So we would be mistaken to think that God is promising that if we pull the prayer lever, all the goodies instantly come out of the chute. Sometimes in His purpose and wisdom, God delays the answers to our prayers for years. Yet, in another sense, He has already granted the requests.
Usually, we should continue praying until the request is actually granted (Luke 18:1-8). At other times (I can’t give you a rule for this), you should stop praying and begin thanking God, even though you haven’t yet received what you were praying for.
Many who do not know God pray, but they are not seeking God’s will in prayer. Rather, they are trying to use Him (whoever they conceive Him to be) to get what they want. But biblical prayer is not trying to talk God into giving us what we want. Rather, it is submitting our will to His will. It is praying, as Jesus instructed (Matt. 6:10), “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It would be the height of stupidity to pray for your will to be done as opposed to God’s will. For one thing, it would mean that you know better than God what is best for your life. But He knows everything and He has assured us that He loves us far more than the best earthly father loves his children. So it only makes sense to submit to and pray for His will for your life and for others. Also, to pray for your will against God’s will would be asking God to abdicate His sovereignty over the universe and submit to you as the sovereign! Again, this would be the epitome of stupidity!
But, the difficulty is, how do we determine what God’s will is so that we pray in line with it? Are we talking about His will of decree or His will of desire? God’s will of decree is what He has determined to do. In this sense, God “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). Everything that happens takes place because God decreed it. If anything could happen outside of His will, then He would not be in control of the universe. He would not be the sovereign who plans it and does it (Isa. 46:9-11).
God’s will of desire, however, is different than His will of decree. God does not in any sense desire that men sin, and yet in His will of decree, He permitted the fall of man and He ordained the cross as the means of rescuing us from sin. But although God ordained these events, He did not cause Adam and Eve to sin. He was not responsible for the evil men that crucified Jesus (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). They sinned because of their own evil desires. God took no delight in their sin. He hates sin. Yet, He ordained that Jesus had to die at the hands of sinners.
Here’s the difficulty when it comes to praying for God’s will: It is God’s will of desire that all men be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). Yet, we know that in His decree, God has willed to save only His elect (Rom. 9:9-24). So it would be going against God’s will of decree to pray, “God, save everyone in the world.” (In fact, Jesus excluded the world in His prayer; John 17:9). But, we should pray, “God, save my loved one,” and, “Save my neighbor.” The problem is, I cannot know in advance whether or not He will do it, because I do not know His will of decree. So I ask, but I have to say, “Not my will, but Yours, be done.”
Also, it is difficult to pray according to God’s will because His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9), and we often think that He has to work in the way that makes sense to us. If I had been a disciple of John the Baptist, I would have been praying that he be released from prison and have many more years of effective ministry. God’s way was to have a drunken, lustful king make a stupid promise that resulted in John getting his head lopped off!
If I had been the apostle John, I would have prayed for God to spare my brother, James. After all, he was one of the inner circle of three disciples who were especially close to Jesus. His gifts were needed in the early church. But God permitted Herod to put James to death, but He sent His angel to deliver Peter from the same fate (Acts 12:1-17). Although Scripture does not say that John was praying for his brother’s release, I could not imagine anything else. Yet, his request was not granted, because it was not God’s will!
One more example, which I used when we studied 3:22: If I had heard that Satan was asking permission to sift Peter like wheat, I would have prayed that Peter be able to resist the devil’s attack. But, Jesus didn’t pray for that. Rather, He prayed that Peter’s faith would not ultimately fail, and that after he was restored, he might strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:31-32).
I hope that I’m not discouraging you from praying, but I want you to understand that while God promises to grant our requests when we ask according to His will, it’s not a simple, “name it and claim it,” process. God’s will is that His kingdom will come, and yet the outworking of His will involves thousands of years and many setbacks. We must persevere in prayer even when we do not understand God’s will or His ways.
That’s the general principle, that if we ask anything according to God’s will, He hears and grants our requests. Then John gives a specific example:
Again, John gives a promise and then a qualification.
John does not say, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, go tell the pastor so he can deal with it.” Nor does he say, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, call up all of your friends and tell them about it so that they can pray.” That is a thin spiritual cover for gossip. Nor does he say, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, he should shake his head in disgust and ask, ‘How could he do such a thing?’” That is called “judging your brother.”
Rather, he says that if you see a brother in sin, pray for God to give life to him. While we all are responsible for our own sins, only God can truly deliver us from sin, because only God can impart life. So we’re dependent on God to deliver, but at the same time the sinning brother is responsible to turn from his sin and take the necessary steps not to fall into it again. Also, before we speak to a brother about his sin, we need to speak to God about the brother. Prayer is essential in the restoration process!
But, John’s words set up an interpretive dilemma. If this person is a brother, then why does he need life? Don’t believers already have new life from God? This had led interpreters into two camps. Some say that John is using the word “brother” loosely, to refer to a professing Christian, who is not truly saved. They interpret life to mean conversion, moving from spiritual death to spiritual life (see 3:14). But others say that brother means a true Christian, and thus they interpret life to mean either restoration to fellowship with God or preservation of physical life. To probe further, we need to consider the qualification:
John makes it clear (5:17) that while all unrighteousness is sin, some sins lead to death, whereas other sins are not unto death. John does not forbid praying for someone committing a sin leading to death, but he does not extend the promise that God will grant life to such persons.
The difficult question is, what is a sin unto death? Apparently, John’s readers knew what he meant (since he doesn’t explain it), but we do not. There are four main views, but I’ll warn you in advance, no view resolves all the problems (see John Stott, The Epistles of John [Eerdmans], pp. 191 and James Boice, The Epistles of John [Zondervan], pp. 172-175):
Tertullian taught that some sins, such as murder, idolatry, fraud, denial of Christ, blasphemy, adultery, and fornication could not be committed by true Christians, and that God would not forgive these sins (cited by B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 211). The Roman Catholic Church divides sins into venial sins, which can be forgiven, and mortal sins that result in spiritual death. But the Bible makes no such distinctions, and if Tertullian’s list were applied to those in the Bible, David, Solomon, Peter, and Paul would all be in hell! We can reject this view.
Jesus warned the Pharisees about this sin (Matt. 12:31-32) and said that it could never be forgiven. Jesus was referring to the continued, willful rejection of Him and attributing His works to Satan. John Stott argues that it is such hardened, willful rejection of known truth that constitutes the sin unto death. He also argues that both groups of sinners here are unbelievers, because God will give life to those not committing the sin unto death. This implies that they were spiritually dead.
So for those whose sin is not unto death (those not blaspheming against the Holy Spirit), believers may pray and God will save the sinner (give him life). For those blaspheming the Spirit, there is no promise of life in response to our prayers. They have hardened themselves beyond the possibility of salvation.
There are several problems with this view. You have to understand brother to refer to unbelievers. And, the promise seems to guarantee salvation for everyone that you pray for who has not yet committed the unpardonable sin, which doesn’t fit reality. Also, God has saved some pretty hardened unbelievers, such as the apostle Paul, who was a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13). Of course, John doesn’t forbid prayer for such, but only limits the promise to the other group.
Some say that true believers can lose their salvation. But, this goes against the truth that God keeps all whom He saves, which 1 John 5:18 goes on to affirm (also, John 10:28-29 and many other texts). But the Bible does describe those who make a profession of faith and look like believers for a while. But then they turn from the faith, showing that they were not truly born of God (Mark 4:3-20; Acts 8:9-24; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 2:1, 20-22). The context of 1 John, with the false teachers who had been a part of the fellowship, but who had denied the faith, lends support to this view. Again, John is not saying that we should not pray for such apostates, but he is not extending the promise of God’s giving life to these people.
This view has the same problem as the second view, that it guarantees life to all that we pray for, as long as they have not gone into total apostasy. And, in some cases, life would refer to restoration of fellowship to sinning believers, not to salvation.
In 1 Corinthians 11:30, Paul mentions some who had died because they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (see also, Acts 5:1-11). In this view, John is saying that in the ministry of prayer, some Christians have gone too far. God will not turn back His judgment of physical death, and so it is useless to pray for them. This view takes brother in the normal sense, but it has to understand life and death as physical life and death, not spiritual. The problem with it is, how do you know whether the sinning believer is too far gone to pray for his restoration before you see him die? So it is a somewhat useless command. I used to be inclined to this view, but I probably now lean to the third view.
Whatever view you take, it is still a difficult promise to apply, because John says that if the person has not sinned unto death, God will give life to him. I have not seen the guaranteed results that John promises. I’ve seen many professing Christians go on in their sin without dying physically or being restored to the faith or getting saved, in spite of my prayers. So I have to confess that there is much that I do not understand about prayer. But even if we cannot understand these difficult verses, we should pray for God to bring sinners to repentance and salvation and leave the results to Him. He alone has the power to deliver from sin.
In 1921, Thomas Edison, with many inventions to his credit, said, “We don’t know the millionth part of one percent about anything. We don’t know what water is. We don’t know what light is. We don’t know what gravitation is. We don’t know what electricity is. We don’t know what heat is. We have a lot of hypotheses about these things, but that is all. But we do not let our ignorance about all these thing deprive us of their use” (cited by Lehman Strauss, Sense and Nonsense About Prayer [Moody Press], p. 122).
In the same way, there is much that we do not understand about prayer and we will never understand in this life. But, we should not let that keep us from using it in accordance with what we do know. We do know that if we are children of God, we have confidence before God that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us and will grant our requests. So, let us pray at all times and not lose heart (Luke 18:1)!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
Although I have not studied it since my high school days, I enjoyed studying geometry. It fascinated me how you could prove theorems based on certain axioms. If those axioms were true, the rest followed in logical, step-by-step fashion. You could conclude something with certainty based on the truth of the axioms.
Throughout First John, the apostle has been concerned about what we as Christians can know for certain. He began the letter with the certainty of his firsthand, eyewitness testimony of Jesus Christ (1:1-4). In 2:3, he wrote, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” He writes to the fathers, because they know Him who has been from the beginning (2:13). He writes to the children, because they know the Father (2:14). He says (3:14), “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren.” In my English concordance, I counted 36 instances of the word know in First John.
As he concludes the letter, John drives home this theme. He sums up his purpose (5:13), “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” In 5:15, “And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.” Now, in the final section, three times again he uses this word, at the beginning of verses 18, 19, 20: “We know… we know… we know….” John wants us to be certain about these important truths. He is still countering the false teachers and their destructive claims of secret knowledge.
Verses 18, 19, and 20 are in one sense just a review of what has already been said. You tend to read these verses and think, “Got it! Got it! Got it!” You think that you’ve passed the course, that you’ve got the material down just fine.
Then John throws a final fastball right by us (5:21): “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” You stand there flat-footed, thinking, “Where did that come from?” He hasn’t been saying anything about idolatry. He hasn’t mentioned it in the entire book. So, at first glance, it seems out of context. But as you think about it, it sums up his entire message. Idolatry is making up your own god as a substitute for the one true God, who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. The false teachers were doing just that. They were offering a false god of speculation, not the one true God of revelation. So John’s final words are a warning against adopting the errors of man-made religion. We can sum up his message in 5:18-21:
Because of what we know about our relationship with God, we must guard ourselves from idols.
John says that we know three things:
John has just explained (5:17) that while all unrighteousness is sin, there is a sin not leading to death. But he does not want his little children to mistakenly think that it’s normal for true children of God to live in sin. So he restates the same point that he made in 3:4-10, “that no one who is born of God sins.” Sins is in the present tense, which allows for the sense of “continually sin.” Since John has clearly said that believers do sin (1:8, 10; 2:1; 5:16), he must mean here that no genuine child of God lives in a state of sin.
In 3:9, John based his assertion that those born of God could not sin on the fact that God’s seed abides in them. The new birth provides a new nature from God, which cannot sin. Some contend that while the new nature cannot sin, because believers also have the old nature, born again people may live no differently than unbelievers do. In other words, they say that saving faith does not necessarily result in a righteous life.
But that is exactly what the Gnostics in John’s day claimed. They drew a distinction between the material body and the spirit. If you confronted them with frequenting prostitutes, they would have claimed, “That was just my body; my spirit is not tainted by that, it is pure!” John is saying, “That is nonsense!” He says (3:7-8a), “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil.” You can normally tell by looking at a man whether he is a child of God or not.
So, both in chapter 3 and in our text, John is saying that the new birth has an obvious result, namely, a righteous life. While true believers do fall into sin, they cannot live in it indefinitely. The changed nature results in changed behavior. If a pig falls into a mud hole, he wallows in it and doesn’t try to get out, because that is its nature. But if a sheep falls in a mud hole, it wants to get out, get cleaned up, and avoid that hole in the future, because it has a different nature. So it is with a true child of God.
In 5:18, John gives as the reason that no one born of God sins that “He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” The New KJV, following a textual variant, translates, “he who has been born of God keeps himself, ….” While the New Testament does talk about the believer keeping himself (2 Tim. 5:22; James 1:27; Jude 21; see also, 1 John 3:3; 5:21), here John seems to be focusing on Christ as the one who keeps us from Satan’s clutches. Although the reference to Jesus as “He who was born of God” is unique, John probably wanted us to identify with our sympathetic Savior, who shares our humanity and yet who kept Himself from all sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
When John says that “the evil one does not touch him,” he does not mean that we are completely isolated from Satan’s assaults. The enemy can tempt us and sift us like wheat (Luke 22:31) with God’s permission. But he cannot lay hold of us to make us captives of sin for the rest of our lives. We may fall into his evil clutches and end up in Doubting Castle, as Bunyan’s pilgrims did, but we have the key to escape and get back on the path to the Celestial City. John says that we know that no one born of God continues in sin. But in light of the false teaching that true Christians can live apart from the lordship of Christ, I wonder if we really do know this today! Then John gives a second certainty:
This is a restatement of 2:15, “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” Throughout the letter, John has drawn a sharp line between believers and the world (3:1, 13; 4:4, 5; 5:4, 5). He does not allow for a middle category, of true believers who keep one foot in the world. Either you are “of God” and separate from this evil world, or you are of the world and you lie in the arms of the evil one.
John described the world (2:16) by the three phrases, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life,” and said that such things “are not from the Father.” Believers must not live to gratify the flesh or to pursue the outward, material things that consume the world’s fancy. Life is short and hangs by a thread. To take pride in this life or in this evil world is to trust in what will soon perish. Only that which is eternal is worth pursuing.
In 5:19, John describes the whole world as lying in the power (or arms) of the evil one. The picture is not of frantic captives, desperately trying to escape this depraved tyrant. Rather, they lie quietly in his evil clutches, oblivious to their tragic plight. The god of this world has blinded their minds (2 Cor. 4:4). They can wear “Life is Good” T-shirts, oblivious that they are wandering perilously close to the edge of the abyss. They don’t realize that “in due time their foot will slip” (Deut. 32:35) and they will face God in judgment. Rather, they are sleeping peacefully in the arms of the evil one who will destroy them!
In contrast to the world, believers are “of God.” This means that Christ “gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Or, as Paul also wrote (Col. 1:13-14), “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We now belong to and serve a new Master. He gave us new life, so that in every sense, we are “of God.” So our lives should be God-centered and God-focused. We should be taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
John says that we know this. But in light of many recent surveys, which show that there is no discernible difference in morals or values between those claiming to be born again and the population at large, it is not out of line to ask, “Do you know this?” Is there a fundamental difference between your priorities and goals and those of your non-Christian neighbors? Are you living for God and His glory and kingdom, or do you just attend church services a little more often than the rest of the population? It is axiomatic: “We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19). Then John adds a third certainty:
John’s third affirmation is, “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.” “And” is literally a mild adversative particle, contrasting the blind indifference of the world (5:19) with the new understanding of the believer.
There is a progression of thought here. First, Jesus came and John and his fellow apostles had to recognize Him as the Son of God. That was a title of deity. For example, Jesus said (Luke 10:21-22), “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” Jesus there claims a unique relationship with the Father that all others lack. Only He can reveal the Father to us, according to His sovereign will. If Jesus doesn’t reveal the Father, we cannot know Him.
In John 5:17-18, Jesus claimed that God is His Father, which the Jews understood as blasphemy, because he was making Himself equal with God. Rather than denying their charges, Jesus went on to state some of the strongest affirmations of His deity in all of Scripture. He claimed to have the power to give life to whom He wishes, to judge everyone, and to receive the same honor as the Father (John 5:21-23). He claimed that the day is coming when those in the tombs would hear His voice and come forth, either to a resurrection of life or of judgment (John 5:28-29). John and his fellow apostles recognized Jesus as the Son of God, because He had opened their eyes. This points to the historical foundation of the Christian faith.
Not only did they know “that the Son of God has come,” but also, He “has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true.” Without this supernatural gift of understanding, we cannot know God. As Paul writes (1 Cor. 2:14), “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” This divine gift of understanding brings us into a personal relationship with the only true God, so that we come to know Him. Here John uses a different word for know, which means, to know experientially. There is a great difference between knowing about someone and actually knowing the person himself. Through the understanding that Christ gives, we come personally to “know Him who is true.” The word “true” means “genuine” or “authentic.” He is the only genuine God; all others are fakes or impostors.
Then John adds, “we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ.” This refers to the abiding relationship that John has spoken of so often. We dwell in God through Jesus Christ. The close mention of Jesus with God also shows the deity of Christ.
John also adds, “This is the true God and eternal life.” The phrase calls to mind Jesus’ words (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” Eternal life is to know personally the only true God through His Son. If you don’t know Him, you do not have eternal life.
Conservative scholars are divided over whether the last phrase, “This is the true God,” refers to the Father or to Jesus. John Stott and James Boice follow B. F. Westcott in arguing that “This” refers to “Him who is true,” in which case all three uses of true refer to the Father. But, many early church fathers, as well as the Reformers, argued that the phrase refers to the closest antecedent, namely, to Jesus Christ. If so, this is one of the strongest direct statements of the deity of Christ in the New Testament. In light of John’s polemic against the false teachers, who denied Jesus’ deity, it would seem fitting at the end of the book to refer to Jesus as “the only true God and eternal life.” Either way, it is obvious that the close and unique relationship between Jesus and the Father could not be shared by any mere man. As John earlier stated (2:23), “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.”
Thus John states three axioms, three things that true believers know with certainty: (1) No one who is born of God lives in sin. (2) We are of God, in contrast to the world that lies in Satan’s power. (3) The Son of God has come and has given us understanding to know the true God. Then, without warning, John throws his fastball:
As I said, at first glance, verse 21 seems out of context. But in verse 20 John has just mentioned the true God. This undoubtedly brought to his mind the false god of the heretics. They denied the God of the Bible. They said that “the Christ” came upon the man Jesus at His baptism and left just prior to His crucifixion. But they did not believe that He is eternal God in human flesh. In light of their false god, it is natural for John to warn his little children to guard themselves from idols.
We may think that this warning had a special application in Ephesus, where John sent this letter. The Temple of Diana (or Artemis) was there and the silversmiths made a good living making statues of this pagan goddess (Acts 19:23-41). If you travel today in the Far East or in primitive tribal areas, you see many shrines to idols. But Americans, it would seem, do not have a problem with bowing down before statues of imagined gods.
But that is not the case. Even here in Flagstaff, there is an entire store downtown that is devoted to selling idols. I don’t mean to be offensive, but go into any Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox church and you will see people praying to statues or icons, which is idolatry, even if it is a representation of Jesus. Our Lord made it clear (John 4:24), “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” Any form of bowing before pictures or statues of Jesus or the saints is a violation of biblical worship.
Invariably, idolaters make up their own gods to suit their desires and preferences. They do not submit to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ through the Bible. Our local paper just ran an article about a church in town that is celebrating its one hundredth birthday. The pastor said that the church “has a heart for the compassion of Jesus Christ, as well as for the justice for which he stood. We strive to be an open and inclusive congregation, welcoming everyone equally and without judgment.” The article made it clear that this means welcoming those of every sexual orientation and theological perspective. That church is worshiping a “Jesus” of their own imagination and liking, not the Jesus revealed in the Bible, which is idolatry.
In the most basic sense, an idol is anything that takes the rightful place of God in your life. Paul equated covetousness or greed with idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Your career, your pursuit of money, your possessions, excessive devotion to leisure and recreation, or even putting a human relationship ahead of your relationship with God, may all become idols. Putting your intellect above God’s revelation is idolatry. Watching hours of inane or immoral TV shows each week or spending hours playing computer games, while not having time to spend with God or serve Him, is idolatry.
At the root of all of these is the idol of self. The idolater has not yielded the throne of his life to the true God. Rather, he wants his will and his way, and he tries to use God to get what he wants. If his god delivers, he sets the god back on the shelf until the next time he needs something and then uses it again. If it doesn’t deliver, he’ll shop around for a better god who gets him what he wants. But the idolater does not submit to the living and true God. I fear that even many who claim to be born again Christians are only trying to use God to get happiness or peace or a better life. If He brings trials, they look for a new god. That is idolatry!
John tells us to “guard” ourselves from idols, which implies that we have something valuable that the enemy is trying to steal. Spurgeon points out that if a man has a box and he’s not sure what’s in it, he won’t be very careful about guarding it. But if he knows that it contains a rare and valuable treasure, he will be diligent to guard it carefully. John is saying that if you know the true God and His Son Jesus Christ, you have a treasure. Guard it so that you don’t drift into one of the many forms of idolatry.
A Newsweek article many years ago (1/31/1983) told about how treasure hunters looking to make a huge profit were stealing rare idols from the Hopi reservation. The worst theft happened in 1978, when looters took four ancient stick figures representing the most sacred deities of the Hopi religion. “Without the idols, there could be no Hopi rituals,” the article stated, “and without the rituals, the tribe’s spiritual life was in danger of extinction.” A tribal leader explained that these ceremonies “bring blessings in rainfall, bountiful crops, good health, long life. That is being lost to us.” What a sad description of idolatry! You make up your own gods and then use them to get what you want. The problem is, these gods may be stolen and your way of life is destroyed. If it can be taken from you, it isn’t the true God!
Make sure that even if you claim to follow Him as a born again Christian, you don’t fall into the idolatry of using Him to get what you want, or accepting the parts of Him that you like and rejecting the parts you don’t like. That is no different than pagan idolatry. “Little children” implies that we are vulnerable and weak. Guard yourselves from idols!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.