1 John 3:1-7
This is a pastoral letter to churches in conflict––written to address the conflict and to prevent its spread. A number of scholars think of this as a sermon in written form.
The problems in the churches were caused by false teachers who had left the church (2:19). These false teachers denied the Incarnation and the deity of Jesus and claimed not to be sinners. They may have been precursors of the Gnostic heretics who plagued the second century church.
These false teachers remained influential. The danger was that they would persuade neophyte believers to accept their heretical teachings.
The following verse from chapter two speaks of two things that lead into chapter three:
“If you know that (Christ) is righteous,
you know that everyone who practices righteousness
is born of him” (2:29).
1 JOHN 3:1-3. WE ARE CHILDREN OF GOD
1Behold, how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. 2Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet revealed what we will be. But we know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. 3Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure.
“Behold, how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (v. 1a). God has adopted us into God’s family as God’s sons and daughters. Jesus Christ was God’s natural son, but God treated Israel as his son (Exodus 4:22; 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7; Romans 9:4)––and treats Christians as his children.
We Christians are God’s adopted children. While “adopted” might seem to suggest a second-rate status, that is not so when God is the adoptive Father. I especially like the story of the mother of two children––one natural born and the other adopted. When someone asked, “Which child is adopted?” the mother gazed for a moment into the distance and then answered, “I can’t remember.”
- Paul says that we “are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). He also says:
“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God,
these are the children of God.
For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear,
but you received the Spirit of adoption,
by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father.’
The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit
that we are children of God;
and if children, then heirs; heirs of God,
and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17).
- We “are no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:7).
John speaks with wonder at the amazing privilege that the Father has bestowed on us. Try to recover that sense of wonder. Think about what it would be like to be adopted by the king of a mighty nation––or the president of a mighty country––or one of the wealthiest families in town. That sort of adoption doesn’t always work out well, because the adopted son or daughter sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
But we who have been adopted into God’s family won’t get lost in the shuffle. God loves us more than any earthly father loves his child. We have his ear every moment of every day. Just think about the wonder of that.
“For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him” (v. 1b). The children of this world and the children of God are quite different––so different that the children of the world can’t quite understand what makes the children of God tick––can’t appreciate the qualities that make the children of God different. The two groups have a different view of the world, and that difference shapes their value systems in different ways.
The reason that the children of this world can’t understand or appreciate the children of God is that the children of this world don’t know Christ. They haven’t experienced the rebirth that Christ makes possible (John 3:16). They are standing with both feet firmly planted in the kingdom of this world instead of (like the children of God) having one foot planted in the kingdom of this world and the other foot planted in the kingdom of God.
“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet revealed what we will be” (v. 2a). John draws a line between the present and the future. We are already children of God––have already been adopted into God’s family––already have a seat at God’s table.
But we are surprised to hear him say that “it is not yet revealed what we will be.” Hasn’t Christ given us a glimpse into our future state! Of course, John has not yet written the book of Revelation, so it seems likely that he has not yet seen the visions of the heavenly kingdom that he reveals there.
But we have much yet to learn. Even the apostles know only in part (1 Corinthians 13:9).
But, as Paul says (quoting Isaiah 64:4), “Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). We hardly know all that awaits us, but we can be assured that God has prepared things beyond anything that we have hoped or desired:
- Beauty beyond anything that our eyes have seen. I have been blessed to see spacious skies––and amber waves of grain––and purple mountain majesties––and fruited plains––and shining seas. But John says, “You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!”
- Music beyond anything our ears have heard. I have been blessed to listen to symphonies ––and a rock concert or two––and blaring disco music when that was all the rage. But John promises, “You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!”
- Wonders beyond anything that our hearts have desired. My heart has soared at the presence of a lovely woman walking to the front of the church to stand with me before the preacher. My heart has dreamed of houses and cars and travel and ten thousand things––and some of my dreams have come true. But John promises, “Get ready! This is going to knock your socks off!”
“But we know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is” (v. 2b). I quoted 1 Corinthians 13:9 in the comments on verse 2a. Now listen to the next verse:
“But when that which is complete has come,
then that which is partial will be done away with” (1 Corinthians 13:10).
John assures us that when Christ comes again, “we will be like him.” We will put on the new man––the new woman––”who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:24).
We will see this, not dimly as in a mirror, but face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12).
“Everyone who has this hope set on him purifies himself, even as he is pure” (v. 3). “On him” means “on Christ.”
Those who have fixed their hope on Christ will purify themselves so that they might become like him. While on our earthly journey, this will be only a partial transformation, but Christ will complete the purification process when he comes again. But even if our preparation for his coming can be only partial, we owe it to Christ––and to ourselves––to prepare ourselves as completely as possible for entry into the heavenly regions.
1 JOHN 3:4-6. SIN IS LAWLESSNESS
4 Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. 6 Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him.
“Everyone who sins (literally “commits sin”) also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness” (v. 4). As noted in The Context above, John said, “If you know that (Christ) is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of (Christ)” (2:29). Now John states the other side––”Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness.”
To appreciate the significance of that statement, we need to remember that faithful adherence to Jewish law was one of the most significant marks of the Jews. To equate sin with lawlessness is to state unequivocally that sin is incompatible with faith.
The word for “sins” or “commits sin” is present tense, which in the Greek means “sins or commits sin regularly or deliberately.” John isn’t saying that occasional or inadvertent sin makes one lawless. After all, we all sin (Romans 3:23). Paul also says:
“For I don’t know what I am doing.
For I don’t practice what I desire to do;
but what I hate, that I do.
But if what I don’t desire, that I do….” (Romans 15-16).
We have all experienced that, haven’t we. We would like to do what is right, but we find ourselves doing what is wrong. None of us is perfect––and none of us will be perfect while on this earth.
But John is saying that the person who deliberately lives a sinful lifestyle is lawless. Ongoing sin or intentional disregard of God’s will makes one lawless.
“You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin” (v. 5). Christ was sinless, and came to take away our sins so that we too might be sinless.
“Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him” (v. 6). Once again, the words “sin” and “sins” are present tense, indicating continual or deliberate sin rather than occasional or inadvertent sin.
That doesn’t mean that occasional or inadvertent sin is unimportant. Every sin imparts a spiritual blemish that makes us unfit to abide in the presence of God’s holiness. However, as noted in verse 5 above, Christ came to take away our sins––to cleanse us from sin––to make us holy and fit for God’s kingdom.
John is saying that sin and holiness are incompatible. Christ came to restore our holiness, and we need to try live righteously––to maintain that holiness.
1 JOHN 3:7. LET NO ONE LEAD YOU ASTRAY
7 Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.
“Little children, let no one lead you astray” (v. 7a). John’s concern is that these new Christians might come under the sway of the false teachers and be led astray. A fast-talker can often persuade a neophyte that up is really down and wrong is really right.
Truth is important. Jesus said, “The truth will make you free” (John 8:32). The opposite is also true. Living according to untrue principles can rob people of their freedom.
False teachers are a problem for every age. Our culture today is highly secular. It calls us to tolerate every kind of behavior and every kind of belief. It excuses every kind of misbehavior. It tells us that there are no absolutes––that people should be able to follow their own star and do whatever they think is right for them.
The problem is discerning false teachers from those who would lead rightly. We need to be open to new ways of expressing the old truths––and to people who disagree with us. However, we also need to discern false teachers in our midst, lest we (and others) be led astray.
“He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (v. 7b). Apparently the false teachers have taught that doing what is right is unnecessary––a sentiment that is alive and well in our world today.
But John takes the other side. To be righteous and worthy of fellowship with Christ, we need to practice righteousness––not just give it lip service.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Akin, Daniel L., New American Commentary: 1, 2, 3 John, Vol. 38 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2001)
Black, C. Clifton, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude and Revelation, Vol. XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Brownlee, Annette G., in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Gaventa, Beverly R., in Brueggemann, Walter, Cousar, Charles B., Gaventa, Beverly R., and Newsome, James D., Texts for Teaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B., Hayes, John H., Holladay, Carl R., and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Johnson, Thomas F., New International Biblical Commentary, 1, 2, and 3 John (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, In., 1993)
Jones, Peter Rhea, Smyth & Helwys Biblical Commentary, 1, 2 & 3 John (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing Company, 2009)
Kruse, Colin G., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letters of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000)
Marshall, Howard, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978)
MacArthur, John, MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1-3 John (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007)
McDermond, J.E., Believers Church Bible Commentary, 1, 2, 3 John (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2011)
Rensberger, David, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 John; 2 John; 3 John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Smalley, Stephen S., Word Biblical Commentary: 1,2,3 John, Vol. 51 (Dallas: Word Books, 1984)
Smith, D. Moody, Interpretation: First, Second, and Third John (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991)
Stott, John R.W., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Letters of John, Vol. 19 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1964, 1988)
Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan