John is writing to Christians who have been influenced by false teachings concerning the identity of Christ and the manner in which they are saved. These Gnostic teachers are proposing the idea that Jesus was only a spirit, and in order to be truly saved they must adhere to special "secret knowledge" involving restriction of foods and sexual relations in marriage, etc.
John refutes these false ideas in two ways:
- He describes his eyewitness experience of Jesus to demonstrate that Jesus was fully God and fully man at one time.
- He explains three ways a person can be certain of their salvation without reference to or need of any special knowledge from the Gnostic teachers.
Previously, we examined John's description of the real Jesus and the first of the ways we can be certain of our salvation. He said we can be certain by observing our behavior (he calls it walking in the light). John taught that our behavior in the areas of personal conduct (obeying the commandments), social relationships (love of the brethren), separation from the world (focus on heaven) and adherence to truth (speaking and teaching the gospel) would determine if we were walking in the light or not. It was a self-test to see if one was walking in the light (acting like a Christian) or not. If one was, it was a proof of salvation.
In this chapter we are going to look at another way we can be certain that we are saved.
Knowing the Good From the Bad — 2:28-3:10
Before we do that, however, we need to review a passage which we neglected last time. I said that the first way to assure certainty in salvation was by "walking in the light," and John explains the four ways that one behaves to prove that he is walking in the light. At the end of chapter 2 John makes a parenthetical statement about how to determine those who truly belong to Christ and those who do not. They were being seduced by false teachers and were having trouble telling the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. In 2:28-3:10 he provides them with a foolproof method.
28Now, little children, abide in Him, so that when He appears, we may have confidence and not shrink away from Him in shame at His coming. 29If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him.
- I John 2:28-29
He encourages them to be faithful to Jesus so that when He returns they will not be afraid or ashamed of their unfaithfulness or sinfulness.
Then he makes the key statement that he will use in the next ten verses explaining: Everybody who does what Jesus does belongs to Jesus. In other words, the people who do what Jesus would have done, these are the good guys. These are the ones you listen to, you follow and you learn from.
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.
- I John 3:1
John goes on to comment on how wonderful God is to make us His children (another way of saying "saved us") and because of that we are different from those in the world. So different in our conduct that we are misunderstood and sometimes persecuted in the same way that Jesus was.
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.
- I John 3:2
He reminds them that even though there has been a change in them compared to their former lives, there will be another change when Jesus returns. We do not know exactly how we will be changed in order to exist in heaven, all we know is that we will be like Him at His appearing. The faithful who are alive at His coming will know Him and see Him when He returns, there will be no mistake (you will not miss it by accident).
And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
- I John 3:3
If this is so, then we are to be ready and act properly (purify ourselves, walk in the light) just as Jesus acted. Our hope is that Jesus will return and take us to heaven. Our lives and actions are based squarely on this event.
Once he has established how Christians are to act and why, he describes the very opposite conduct and what it means.
4Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 5You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
- I John 3:4-6
The key word here is "practices." The point is that those who practice (it is a habit, a way of life, a routine) a sinful lifestyle are not from God, no matter what they say. John may now be referring to that group of Gnostic teachers who advocated a hedonistic or libertine lifestyle as a way of freeing the spirit from the body. Some teachers said that since there was no connection between the soul and body, the body could do what it wanted without affecting the soul. This was a pretty attractive doctrine for those who had a weakness for worldly behavior. John tells them that Jesus died to take sinfulness away. Anyone who advocated or practiced sin was not following the one who died for sin.
7Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. 10By 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.
- I John 3:7-10
In the final verses of this section John goes one step further by saying that not only are those who practice sin not of God, their behavior shows who they really follow: the Devil. The idea that a son of God does not sin means that a Christian does not practice or advocate sin. He tries (with various success) to practice righteousness.
Certainty by Abiding in Love — 3:11-4:21
Now that John has explained how to spot the bad guys, he gives another way to the Christians to be certain of their salvation: love. John has already mentioned this in the discussion on walking in the light, but in this next section he amplifies and explores the true meaning of Christian love.
11For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; 12not as Cain, who was of the evil one and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother's were righteous. 13Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you.
- I John 3:11-13
Again, John reiterates the bottom line message of the gospel: love. He refers to Cain and Abel because this is the first example of the command to love being violated. He also emphasizes this central theme of Christian doctrine to show how off-center the teachings of the Gnostics were. John mentions the fact that the reason for Cain's murderous rage was his jealousy over his brother's good deeds which shone brightly alongside his own evil conduct. John says that this is also the reason behind the world's hatred of Christians (their good shows up the world's evil).
14We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. 15Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. 16We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17But 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? 18Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
- I John 3:14-18
John emphasizes the idea that you cannot claim to be a disciple of Jesus without loving as Jesus loves. His extreme example is Jesus Himself dying to save us. In like manner we should be willing to love our brethren not in word only, but in deed as well. He repeats the idea that if you do not love or help your brethren, you do not belong to God (regardless of what you say) because you do not reflect His basic character.
19We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him 20in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things. 21Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22and whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.
- I John 3:19-22
A wonderful benefit and defining characteristic of those who love their brethren is that they have confidence in their salvation, a clear conscience and a powerful prayer life because the prayers of the righteous are heard and answered. The best way to dissipate guilt and fear is obeying the Lord and loving your brethren.
23This is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. 24The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
- I John 3:23-24
They have been reduced into thinking that extreme denial of the flesh or extreme worldliness will somehow elevate them to some superior state of spiritual awareness or freedom. John explains that neither extremes will provide this. In the end, a quiet heart, peace in the face of death, confidence before God and true spirituality are the result of two basic things:
- Faith in Jesus as the divine Savior.
- Sincere love of the brethren who share that faith.
These two things will identify us as the ones who belong to God and possess His Spirit.
Our study has included a transitional section where John qualifies who are the good and bad: those who obey Christ are truly good, those who disobey Christ are truly bad. Note that it is not their politics, their personality or position, or what they say that determines this, it is a decision based on one's obedience to Christ. There are a lot of popular and likable people who disobey Christ so do not be fooled, John says. Those who act like Jesus are the good guys. In addition John gives another way a person can be certain that they are saved: if they love like Jesus loved and love the ones Jesus loved, they belong to God and are among the saved.
Our next chapter will be the last in John's first epistle and we will look at the final way he says we can assure ourselves of our place with God.