Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24
Reading 1 John all the way through, it sounds more like a sermon than a letter.
And the community of early Christians hearing these words preached to them seems to have been one in need of some encouragement. Although the precise situation is debated, it does appear that there was something of a church-split happening in the community, a community that was already perhaps feeling a bit precarious in a Roman Empire that was not thrilled with their proclamation of faith in a crucified (and risen) Savior. Calling this time the “last hour,” the preacher describes an unidentified “they” who have “gone out” from the community, and thus left behind the other disciples over differing interpretations of Jesus’ identity and necessity for their connection to God (1 John 2:18-27).
While all this might seem tangential to our passage, it is actually quite crucial. This conflict, whatever its unrecoverable particulars may be, sets the stage for the admonition and encouragement in 1 John 3:16-24. The “left behind” Christians in the Johannine community were wrestling with issues of identity: how could they tell whom to trust?
Those disciples who left probably seemed convinced of their own teachings even if the preacher calls them “antichrists” (1 John 2:18-25; 4:3)! In the middle of this controversy, and uncertainty, the preacher of 1 John affirms that he and his audience in the community are the “children of God.” He writes, “Behold what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, and we are!” (1 John 3:1). He seeks to encourage them, not only of their own identity as God’s children — and thus as ones connected to God’s love, light, and life — but also of their knowledge, which comes from their divine connection.
In 1 John the “knowledge” the believers have comes through Jesus, who is the revelation of God’s life, love, and will for the world. Jesus, the Unique One (monogenes) and the only one called God’s “Son,” reveals to the world God’s love by living the way God desires: namely, by loving others “to completion” or “to perfection” in his decision to “lay down his life” on behalf of others (1 John 3:16; John 13:1-2; 15:12-14; 19:28-30).
Of course, this laying down is not the whole story. As Jesus tells the crowd gathered around him in John 10:17-18, he lays down his life so that he can take it up again. The laying down of his life is not the end, but only part of his glorification that demonstrates the victory of Life over death, as well as God’s gift of life to all who receive it (John 1:12-13). When disciples truly receive, believe, and love they imitate the example of Jesus, God’s Son, as they live out their own lives as God’s children.
In 1 John 3:16-24, then, our preacher continues his encouragement by reminding the children of God how their identity should be revealed in their own daily lives. In contrast to the “children of the devil” described in 3:10-15 with the vivid example of Cain and his “slaying” of his “brother,” Abel, God’s children should live like his Son, not slaying, but “laying down” their lives “on behalf of [their] brothers” (3:16; John 10:17-18; 15:12-14).
Since they should be willing to die for one another, they should also freely help one another when siblings are in need; they should give from their livelihood (bios) as well as from their lives (psyche) to help a sibling in need (1 John 3:16-17). Playing lip-service to love is not enough; after all, the preacher has already said that the one whose actions do not match their words is a liar, is in the darkness still, and does not have God’s word (that is, life) in them (1 John 1:2, 10; 2:4, 9; see also 4:20).
Indeed, the preacher continues, these actions — the daily loving of siblings in the community through care, compassion, and giving that are the demonstration of one’s “words and speech” with “work and truth” (1 John 3:18) — the children of God are confirmed again in their identity, even when their own hearts might wonder. “In this we know that we are from the truth and before him [God] we persuade our hearts — if our hearts should condemn us — that God is greater than our hearts and he knows all things” (1 John 3:20).
In other words, not only do the actions of others reveal their identities — are they “children of God” or “children of the devil” (3:10-15) — but our own actions are also revelatory. They unmask our own identities to others and to ourselves, and they can give us the confidence we, when left on our own, may lack. When we love our siblings, we show everyone and reaffirm even to ourselves that we are “children of God.”
The encouragement continues in 1 John 3:21-24: knowing our identity as God’s children gives us “confidence” or “boldness” (parresia) to approach God to ask for help, assured that we will not be shamed (see 1 John 2:28-29; 4:17; 5:14). This confidence comes from the unity, or abiding, that exists between Jesus the Son, God himself, and God’s children who have received God’s Spirit (1 John 3:24). Repeatedly the preacher reminds the children of their “abiding,” mimicking language of Jesus himself from the Gospel of John (see 1 John 2-4; John 15).
The children, as ones abiding in God — that is, remaining united with God by believing and imitating his Son — will ask and receive in accord with God’s will; it cannot be otherwise (1 John 3:9). Like Jesus, these children are assured that their Father hears them because they are united with him by means of the Son and the Spirit. Even though others may have “gone out,” the preacher encourages his siblings to “remain,” to “abide,” since it is only by being connected to God that one experiences eternal life (1 John 2:24-25; 3:23-24).