Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3
First John 3 is a fitting text for All Saints Day.
It gives us hope for the saints who have preceded us in death, while reminding us of our current identity as God’s children in the midst of what can be an overwhelming world. First John 3:1-3 is part of a hinge that flows from the author’s admonition about antichrists in 2:18-27 into a later section describing the differences between God’s children and those of the devil in 3:7-18.
The larger context of our passage shows the seriousness of the sermon, as well as the intensity of the crisis as felt by our author. Nevertheless, it should also be clear that the overall focus is on encouragement for the audience, rather than a loss of faith. They are reminded of their identity as God’s children and called to live out that identity in love (3:16-18).
Tucked in between these polemical portions is 1 John 2:28-3:6, and within that, our passage of 3:1-3. All of 2:28-3:6 summarizes what has come before in 2:18-27 while also introducing language of birth and “children” that will continue in 3:7-18. The “child” language of 3:1-3 itself resonates with the speaker’s continual use of the address “little children” (teknia) or “little ones” (paidia) throughout the sermon. The extension of this address to “children of God” not only contextualizes the other use of “child” language in 1 John, but also ties this section of the sermon back to the promises of the Gospel prologue: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of a man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
The encouragement the audience of 1 John receives reaches a climax at 2:28-3:2. In this space, the speaker takes a moment to address the audience directly, especially in 3:1-3, encouraging them not only about the future (2:28-29), but also about the present. For the author of 1 John, “eternal life” as God’s children is not just a future hope, but a current reality. Looking more closely at 3:1-3, we find repetition and parallelism that is so characteristic of 1 John (my translation):
A. Behold, what kind of love the Father has given to us,
that we should be called children of God, and we are!
B. On account of this, the world does not know us,
because it did not know him.
A’. Beloved, now children of God we are,
and not yet was it revealed what we will be.
B’. We know that if he should be revealed,
like to him we will be,
because we will see him just as he is.
C. And each one having this hope in him makes himself holy, just as that one is holy.
In these verses, the author contrasts “we” with “the world.” Using “we”-language, the author creates a unified perspective with his audience: they are all already together as God’s children in spite of the departure of the antichrists (former believers) from their midst (1 John 2:18-27). Moreover, the rejection “we” face from “the world” is not because of “our” failure, but results from right knowledge about who Jesus is: God’s Son and Christ (1:3; 2:22-25; 5:5-12). The world, because it does not recognize him, also fails to recognize other children of God.
In 1 John, the present reality that “we” are God’s children is the foundation of our future hope. In 2:28-29, the author reminds the audience of the “boldness” they will have before Jesus when he returns. Rather than hiding in shame, they will be bold to approach their fellow sibling from God’s family (see also 3:21; 4:17; 5:14-15). First John 3:2 continues to give further details to this image. Not only will the children approach boldly, but they “will be like him”—that is, Jesus—because they will “see him just as he is.” The children of God will be fully transformed by the complete vision of Christ so that their own bodies become like his (John 20:19-29; see also 1 Corinthians 15; Romans 6).
First John 3:3 rounds out the message of hope, but it needs extra attention because it can be easily misunderstood. How can believers “make themselves holy”? The verb used here is hagnizo and can also be translated as “purify.” Read this way, the cultic overtones become clear, and resonate with the description of Jesus’ cleansing blood from 1:5-2:2. Jesus’ continual intercession on behalf of believers is an important part of 1 John. Believers are not alone, making themselves holy; rather, by continuing to confess both their sins and Jesus’ true identity, believers demonstrate their trust in his intercession, and thus benefit from his death and resurrection (see also 5:6-8). Indeed, Jesus uses the related verb hagiazo (and another reflexive pronoun) in John 17:17-19 to describe his death and return to the Father. In Jesus’ prayer, this sanctification is not only for believers, but also for the very world that rejects Jesus and his followers. Jesus prays:
A. Sanctify them in the truth: your word is truth.
B. Just as you sent me into the world,
B’. so also I am sending them into the world.
A’. And on their behalf I am sanctifying myself,
so that they might become ones having been sanctified in truth (author translation).
As we reflect on All Saints Day, 1 John 3:1-3 reminds us of our inclusion in the family of God. We, along with all those confessing and relying on Jesus as God’s Son and Christ—past, present, and future—are “children of God.” Yet, rather than justifying our separation from the world, 1 John (and the Gospel) reminds us that God’s children have a mission: to love.