1 John, 1 John 3:1-13
Post last updated on April 24, 2022
Image: The Cleveland Museum of Art
When John finally concludes his first epistle, he leaves the reader with an unparalleled certainty: The believer knows he has eternal life (1 John 5:12-13). This is the knowledge that is offered up against presumption, and it is the hope that stands against speculation. The modern reader is not without his own spiritual aspirations, but John writes of what the believer may know. Likewise, the ancient reader was not without his eternal ambitions, and John’s epistle associates this kind of knowledge with the Son of God.
Ever since the serpent persuaded Eve that God had forbidden knowledge to man, the scripture has reminded readers that true knowledge is not forbidden at all, but rather revealed by God. Eve’s error lay in seeking knowledge where it was not revealed; and the serpent’s deceit was in promising knowledge through a manner that it was not found (cf. Genesis 2:15-3:24).
Truth and knowledge were neither hidden nor inaccessible to man in the garden, but the serpent made it appear just that. The tragedy, then, is that the sin to which he provoked Eve had the real effect of blinding men from what was clearly revealed by God. What was freely given then became hidden. (See also 2 Corinthians 4:2-4.) Not only were the sensibilities of Adam and Eve corrupted, but the subsequent curse upon the ground meant that the order which God created to reveal himself was also distorted. From that point onward, knowledge would only be construed through repentance. To the unrepentant, it remained hidden; and yet, it should be said that even this hiddenness did not reflect God’s antagonism toward man; it reflected man’s rebellion against God.
When Adam followed Eve in disobedience, the two of them in this way exalted themselves to an unrightful place. (Man’s disobedience of God’s commands is essentially self-exaltation.) In the garden, the creature had exalted himself as if he were the creator, but he also removed himself from the privileges then associated with God’s children.1Men frequently assume that positions of authority are better than those of submission, mainly because in a fallen world authorities often use their power for their own benefit; but God simultaneously exercises his power for his glory and man’s good. When this fact is not reflected in the earthly order, rebellion is promoted, even if it is never excused. Adam’s sons would not be reacquainted with the knowledge of God, until they first humbled themselves before God. In this way, faith toward God reverses the sin of the garden. By freely returning to God in a prescribed repentance, an unbeliever confesses and confirms the order from which Adam freely rebelled. Wonderfully, when the object of man’s repentance is Jesus Christ—the Son of God who is God manifest in the flesh—the rebellion of the first Adam is forever put away by God himself, the Son of God. Believers may then rejoice that privileges and place lost to them through sin are restored through the obedient Son of God, who is their savior.
This all means that God’s revelation after the Fall is no less accessible than it was before the Fall, but that accessibility is now conditioned upon man seeking it from their creator through the Son. And yet it is also true that, because the creator has revealed that truth through the Son, the knowledge of God will remain hidden to the proud and unrepentant—to those who continue in the way of Adam rather than turn to the Way, who is the Last Adam. But when the Last Adam is finally revealed to all at his return, so is the believer’s appearance as a son of God made apparent to all. This is what John writes in his epistle (1 John 3:2), but it also sounds a lot like Paul (1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
What eventually becomes evident to the reader of the Bible is that a distinction arises after the Fall between what is hidden and what is revealed. These two conditions are not absolute, as if what is hidden to some can never be revealed to them, and that what is revealed to some cannot be revealed to others. Rather, the distinction arises after the Fall because men rebelled against their maker. Truth that is reveled by God remains inaccessible to some, only because they remain in rebellion against God.
That said, unrepentant and rebellious men did not cease to be curious or reflective about the world that surrounds them, or even about God himself. They could neither ignore the religious impulse within them nor deny the ethical necessities without; but because their reflections were no longer tethered to God’s revelation, their religion necessarily became speculative. They were also frustrated by ignorance and their incapacities. In the rejection of God’s revelation, religion did not disappear; it was merely reinvented.
Not long after the Fall, a kind of religion developed which remains with us unto this day. In John’s day, it was called Gnosticism, but it is as old as man. It was incurably speculative, but the knowledge it promised was mediated by men. Only a relatively few ever thought of themselves as Gnostics, but its assumptions have always influenced man. Much of the New Testament is, in part, a polemic against this Satanic notion of truth and knowledge. In its contrast, is the apostolic witness of Jesus Christ as God manifest in the flesh, who returns the believer to a right-state with his creator. Through the Savior, the hidden things are made manifest. Knowledge is not the secret possession of the few and initiated. The gospel denies this, but also turns this idea on its head: God had revealed himself to all who receive the Son.
* * *
And so, here in John’s epistle we have a brief reconsideration of this same and common idea: What was once hidden to men is now revealed in God’s Son. John is able to write with the utmost confidence that believers are now sons of God, even as he also writes that the Lord’s eventual reappearance means they will finally appear just as they already are called. The world does not recognize believers as sons of God; but then again, the world did not recognize Jesus as the Son of God. And so, it is that the Lord’s coming will manifest a fact that is still hidden to many. It is Jesus himself, then, who is the fundamental principle and means of God’s revelation, and this seems to be the point of 1 John 3, at least through its first thirteen verses.
This section of scripture tells us that when Jesus Christ was manifest in the flesh, several otherwise hidden truths were then revealed. John notes three of them here. First, Jesus was manifested to take away our sins (verse 5). He was also manifested to destroy the works of the devil (verse 8). And lastly, Jesus himself becomes the means by which the children of God are manifest in distinction from the children of the devil (verse 10). In each of these three cases, it was the Lord’s own incarnation—later accompanied by his death, resurrection, and ascension—that preceded but effected these all. (1 John 4:9 gives us still another case: the love of God was manifested in the Son. 1 John 2:19 is also related to this idea.)
The fact that the Son of God was manifested to take away our sins and destroy the works of the devil (verses 4 and 8) finds its surprising consequence in also manifesting the children of God and the children of the devil (verse 10). This last fact, especially, would have surprised some of John’s readers and certainly many of the Jews of the day; after all, it takes a former covenant distinction and reconsiders it in the light of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. It was never the case that the Jew was to consider himself a superior people; and yet, Israel was given a particular covenant relationship with God that did not exist with the Gentile peoples (Deuteronomy 7:7-9).
With the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, a question eventually arises among Christians. How is God’s covenant with Moses to now relate to Jewish and Gentile believers in the churches? The Acts of the Apostles (especially chapter 15) and Paul’s epistle to the Galatians highlight the importance of that question. That important subject is not our consideration here, but the reader should see how John’s epistle takes this into account. The privilege and mercy that God affords in Christ is a mercy that is expressed to the church: Jews and Gentiles together form one body (cf. Ephesians 2). My contention is that, in the main, these first thirteen verses highlight that important fact and not an ethical principle only. There is, instead, a revelatory principle at work here that supersedes the ethical principle. Again, readers who consider only the ethical significance of verses 4-6 will likely not see how those two verses serve a larger point, which is evident throughout the whole section.
When Jews or Jewish Christians in the first century exalted the Mosaic Law and covenant as the conditional basis of fellowship with God, they were denying the gospel. (Again, this was among Paul’s point to the Galatians.) Instead, the basis of fellowship with God was Christ Jesus himself. Any man walking the streets of an ancient bazaar could have noted a passing Jew and, consequently, considered the Jewish claims in light of outward appearances and rituals; but with the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the outward appearance is made irrelevant by the inward faith.2There is a real sense in which this was always the case, even under the Mosaic Covenant. Outward and legal observances alone were never certain evidences of faith, but that Paul highlights the difference between the ethnic Hebrew and the Jew who is a believer is evident in Romans 2:29, “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” That verse does not say that Gentiles become “spiritual Jews,” but it rather means that Jews who are believers in Jesus are Jews indeed, because they are related to their God by the New Covenant. And the inner faith is but confidence in the Jesus who has come apparently and apprehensibly in the flesh (and, indeed, will come again in the flesh). A formerly hidden truth is now made manifest (cf. Romans 16:25-26). This is the point: Neither sin nor the Law will define a people, but it is faith in the exalted Savior who is the principle of revelation and redemption. Jesus Christ is the means of our communion with God and the basis of unity among all believers, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.
* * *
It seems, then, that this section of scripture assumes and considers the important distinction between the consequences of the Mosaic law and Christ himself. Fundamentally, this distinction is John’s point. Moreover, this same distinction between is predicted in the gospels and highlighted in Paul’s epistles; and so, when it is taken up here is not novel or irregular. This section of scripture does not disagree with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament; but it is in perfect harmony with it.
But the question does remain in the minds of some, how is John’s statement that “whosover abideth in him sinneth not” (1 John 3:6) related to this larger theme? In answer to this, John’s point seems to simply be that the Mosaic law pronounced everyone who transgressed it a sinner (3:4), but that whosever is related to Christ is not imputed with that sin (verse 6), if only because Jesus Christ was manifested to take away our sins. The appearance and work of Jesus Christ achieves what the Mosaic Law could never accomplish, a verdict of sinlessness for the believer.
The radical nature of this statement and distinction is lost on many today, but in those first years after the resurrection, it would have been very controversial. The gospel then moved throughout the Jewish community, and John was confirming that the former old covenant order was now dissolved before the new. The children of God were not manifest by any outward loyalty to Moses or the Law. Nor was the distinction between Jew and Gentile confirmed by the Law, as many Jews of the day might have presumed; but the law that previously separated Jew and Gentile was now removed in Christ (Ephesians 2:13-16). The effective distinction between men now related to their faith in Jesus Christ. Believers are the sons of God, without any regard to their ethnicity, and so are the children of the devil now manifest by their unbelief, regardless of their ethnicity (3:10).
In other words, because the believer is now associated with God’s obedient Son and his risen savior instead of the Law, he is not subject to the penalty of the Mosaic Law. He is born anew, neither suffering the condemnation of Adam, nor the curses of Moses. A believer cannot sin because sin is the transgression of the Law (3:4); and when the Law was removed as a condemning principle and power and nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-14), the believer is no longer able to legally offend that which is removed.
It is not true that a Christian does not act in ways that are offensive to God, for he certainly does; but it is true that the law was removed as a condemning document for him. It was nailed to the cross, but Jesus Christ rose from the dead to become the believer’s principle and evidence of righteousness. If sin is the transgression of the law (3:4), without that law, there nothing left with which to condemn him. (See also Romans 4:15.) In a legal sense, the believer cannot sin, because he is hid in God’s seed, who is Christ (Galatians 3:16).
The point of verse 9, then, is not that the Spirit of Christ within a man keeps him from sinning in any actual sense, but it does mean that the believer’s association with God’s seed and Son changes the believers standing before God. Sin is not imputed to him when he does, in fact, act sinfully. “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” The believer is born of God, and not merely Abraham’s natural descendant (John 8:33). This was one error of the Pharisees. They assumed that an ethnic relation would suffice for a spiritual birth; but Paul wrote that if a man belongs to Christ, he is Abraham’s seed, and beneficiary of God’s promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
The unbelieving Pharisees assumed they were children of God, but the Lord had said they were children of the devil (John 8:44). Here in his first epistle, John merely reiterates this logic: Christ was manifest to take away our sins and destroy the works of the devil (3:5,8), but by this same work he also declared and revealed that these unbelievers were the children of the devil, because those refused the Son. What is hidden to some is made apparent to all at the coming of God’s Son.
Notes & References
|↑1||Men frequently assume that positions of authority are better than those of submission, mainly because in a fallen world authorities often use their power for their own benefit; but God simultaneously exercises his power for his glory and man’s good. When this fact is not reflected in the earthly order, rebellion is promoted, even if it is never excused.|
|↑2||There is a real sense in which this was always the case, even under the Mosaic Covenant. Outward and legal observances alone were never certain evidences of faith, but that Paul highlights the difference between the ethnic Hebrew and the Jew who is a believer is evident in Romans 2:29, “But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” That verse does not say that Gentiles become “spiritual Jews,” but it rather means that Jews who are believers in Jesus are Jews indeed, because they are related to their God by the New Covenant.|