Post last updated on April 24, 2022
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Here in this part of the epistle, when John calls his Christian readers to purify themselves, he does this because their Savior is pure (I John 3:3); and yet, this is not the full extent of the apostle’s reasoning. He also exhorts the Christian to purity, because his Savior will return; but neither does this seem to be all that John is getting at. Rather, John exhorts believers to purify themselves for reason of who they already are, and not merely for who they hope to be.
Because believers possess a present identity that is already inseparably fastened to their future hope, the apostle writes, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God” (I John 3:2). The Christian is not merely one who strives to be what he ought to be, but he strives to act as he already is. And he is what he is because of who is Savior is, the Son of God. Consequently then, believers also possess their rightful title as sons of God. Happily, the believer’s present identity will eventually unfold into a future and fuller expression of this fact, whenever the Savior appears. As such, John writes, “We shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” Even still, it is upon this proposition that John exhorts his readers to purify themselves now, for what already is, must somehow be declared now. The believer purifies himself now. Who we are prescribes what we do.
And yet, the very difficulty is foreseen: the believer does not yet appear to be what he already has been made. And so, there will be failures of many kinds, and some of them related to this apparent disparity between present experience and the present reality. But if a Christian ever now becomes anxious for reason of his physical or moral corruption, he must then remember that his assurance originates and remains in the Son of God himself. The more the believer considers his own actions, the more doubtful he may become; but the more he contemplates his savior, the more likely it is that he will have confidence of the title he already possesses as a son of God. Things may not yet outwardly appear as they are; and yet, they already established better than they appear. And, of course, it is for this similar sentiment that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1Co 13:12). We are known better than we know. And when we know that, we may rejoice.
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1 John 3:5-10, then, carries this same idea forward: there is a distinction between what is true but nonetheless hidden and that which is true and already manifest. The reader will quickly see the frequency with which this same distinction is mentioned in these few verses: “And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins” (1 John 3:5); and also, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). It is a common refrain in this section. Verse 10 also mentions it.
Truth is always true, but it is not always apprehended. This is not at all a bow to relativism, but it rather reinforces the fact that all truth is revealed by God and we must consider the means and timing of his revelation to us. Events and ideas that Christians prematurely place in the sphere of ethics are more principally rooted in a doctrine of revelation. If Christians sometimes ask the practical question, “What am I to do?” it is wise to first consider the questions, “What has God made you to be, and how did he accomplish this? And why has he done this?” In this kind of examination, both redemption and ethics answer to God’s revelation of himself.
The LORD brings a basic but essential revelation of himself to bear upon men and their works by the person of his own Son. The Bible is just this: the revelation of God through his Son by the Holy Spirit in words. Until readers see that the revelatory principle precedes, exceeds, and governs the ethical principles of the New Testament (important, though they be), they will not read the scripture as it is intended. To the point, I am persuaded that this is the cause for much of the confusion that attends this short section of scripture. Christian readers wrestle with the ethical and moral significance of verses 3-5, without taking proper account of the larger thematic argument that surrounds it.
This, then, is my very point. We don’t have anything here that is strange or irregular to the rest of scripture, as confusing as an initial reading of verses 4 and 5 might be. Instead, it is but one example of what is a recurring theme in the Bible: the distinction between that which is hidden and that which is revealed. This is not the place to expound upon that distinction at length, but I only mention that it is frequent, so that the reader can recognize that John’s words here are but consistent with a persistent theme in scripture. For example, when Paul writes of the various mysteries, he is but recalling this distinction. Whether he writes of the church (Ephesians 3:3-6), the incarnation (1 Timothy 3:16), or one of the other several mysteries that he occasionally cites, these are but other examples of how hidden things are now made manifest by and through Jesus Christ. Peter, too, Peter writes with this same principle in mind when he writes of the Lord Jesus, who “verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (1Pe 1:20).
In other words, here in chapter three there is the important principle of revelation before the reader. Men become aware of certain facts only because God reveals them to us. Just the same, he hides certain truths that men will not seek from him and in his Son. (See, for instance, Matthew 11:25.) The fact of this distinction is what guides the reader in the rest of the passage.