Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24
First John 3:16-24 is the central summons of this epistle that calls its recipients to unity as a new covenant community, despite social, cultural, and mainstream distinctions or challenges.
The letter is structured around three appeals to a community in crisis, where the author calls for unity through the axia that God is light (1 John 1:5-2:27), that God is just (1 John 2:28-4:6), and that God is love (1 John 4:7-5:12). In 1 John 3:3:16-24, the author expounds upon the justness of God by reiterating the form and content of the new covenant community narrated in the Gospel of John.
Although we do well not to overemphasize reconstructive speculations, a determining factor for interpreting the Johannine Epistles is their historical relationship to the Gospel of John and the community that produced it. Interpreters take various positions as to whether the letters come from the same hand as the Gospel and/or whether they were written before or after the work of the Fourth Evangelist. The Gospel likely underwent several drafts and refinements over the years and is truly the product of a community’s experience of God’s activity in the world. Indications from the letters suggest they arose from the same general community of believers and reflect the ongoing life of that community as it sought to come to terms with its particular understanding of the good news of Christ and God’s new covenant in a larger socio-cultural environment. Further, they reflect a slightly different and later theological context where the author(s) thought that the Gospel’s message needed further clarification and adaptation.
Therefore, the Letters are best understood as arising from the community after the crisis with post-war Judaism (for example, after 70 CE; what lies behind the Gospel) and focusing upon the life and belief of the community itself at the turn of/early in the second century. The Gospel was likely written circa 90-100 CE in a community defining itself in the Greco-Roman world that includes the mainstream Judaism of its past. The Letters then come from the following decade, circa 100-110 CE, in a community of churches that now finds it necessary to define itself against turmoil from within. Christian ideals are proving difficult to live out in the larger Greco-Roman world that maintains a variety of beliefs and standards. Writing from an authoritative position, the author seeks to stem the tide of discord and dissolution and strengthen and unify his communities.
The formal tone of 1 John is evident even through a first encounter. We can see why early church leaders called it a “catholic epistle” since it lacks a personal address or distinctive audience; rather, it seems to be written to a general, even universal, audience. Further, the relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John is easily apparent. The author uses the same language, themes, and imagery in this more grounded and direct plea for the community. John’s language of believing, love, knowledge, justice, and the gift of truth for the children of God continues to permeate these pages. The content of the letter’s three appeals warns believing communities of the dangers of the world, while instructing them on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. An abbreviated outline of the letter follows:
1:1-4 Prologue: The Word of Life for the Community
1:5–2:27 Opening Appeal to the New Community: God is Light
2:28–4:6 Central Appeal to the New Community: God is Just
2:28–3:10 The Mark of the True Children of God
3:11-24 The New Covenant Commandment
4:1-6 The Call for Discernment and the Testing of Spirits
4:7–5:12 Closing Appeal to the New Community: God is Love
5:13-21 Epilogue: Prayer for the Faithful Community
Our focus rests upon 1 John 3:16-24, which lays out the new covenant commandment within the central appeal to the new community. The primary directive is that God is just. The author is further insistent that the new community is formed upon Jesus Christ’s commandments of believing and loving in him that lead to an outward-turning orientation toward social justice. The trajectory is a theology that leads to Christology, which forms an ecclesiology that manifests ethical action.
The central appeal to the new community emphasizes that God is just in terms of the mark of the true children of God (1 John 2:28–3:10) who are known by their keeping of the new commandment given by Jesus Christ (1 John 3:11-24) and their ability to discern and test spirits (1 John 4:1-6). The justice, or righteousness, of God will manifest in the children of God as a strong sense of ethics. The hope of the children of God is union with God in God’s image and likeness. This ethic is based in the commandments of the new covenant to believe in the name Jesus Christ and to love one another—and be known by this way of life (1 John 3:23). This abiding reality is expressed in the heart of this central appeal: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). Abiding by this ethic brings the Spirit of God into the fellowship of the community and both empowers and emboldens the community to stand fast against the spirits of the world.
Finally, he addresses them as “Beloved” (1 John 4:1), resonating with their founded figure, the Beloved Disciple of the Gospel. They are called to think critically and carefully about “the spirits” of the world, those who teach new ideas and values. They must make their decisions with the traditions of the community at the forefront of that process. The uncompromising polemic begins to ease at this point. The author thus concludes this appeal with the consoling security of eternal relationship with God: “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). They must abide in this communal relationship so that they may act in steadfast love in this world.