Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7
The relationship between 1 John and the Gospel of John becomes evident across the first verses of the letter.
The Evangelist’s language of love, knowledge, and the gift of truth for the children of God permeates these pages but culminate in a more grounded and direct plea for, scholars suggest, the same general community.
Most scholars suggest the letters are written about a decade after the Gospel to address a later threat that was fracturing the Johannine community of churches. Additional details of the world behind these texts must be gleaned from the expressed concerns. First John 2:19-23 indicates a schism has occurred in the community that is based in the denial of Jesus as the Christ. Second John 7-9 clarifies the christological crisis in terms of incarnation: those who have left reject the claim that Jesus was fully human. In distress, the author calls them antichrists — that is anti-Christian in that they are falling for these “new-fangled” ideas and not adhering to the tradition they received. This suggests some members of the community have been attracted to Gnosticism, a Hellenistic form of Christianity developing in the early second century and eventually deemed heresy.
The author’s overarching purpose in writing these epistles, therefore, is to root out these splintering notions and urge unity in the community. Further exploration of 1 John’s structure reveals a prologue that mirrors that of the Gospel (1:1-4), while the final verses likewise echo the Gospel’s concluding sounds (5:13-21). Within this theological frame the author makes three resounding appeals to the new community in terms of the characteristics of God that form the heart and soul of God’s children: light (1 John 1:5-2:27), justice (1 John 2:28-4:6), and love (1 John 4:7-5:12). They warn the community of the dangers of the world, while instructing on the power of faith to conquer all for those who abide in Christ and thus remain in the new covenant community. Today’s passage covers the heart and the first segment of the central appeal (1 John 3:1-7).
The mark of the true children of God
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). First John 3:1-7 presents the summons for the children of God to act righteously. The prologue of the Gospel of John presented the mission of the incarnate Word to be “to give authority” to those who receive and believe in him “to become children of God” (John 1:12). Although the world may not recognize them, it is only because it first did not recognize Jesus as Christ and Son of God (1 John 3:1).
Indeed, the culmination of his sacrificial death was “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:52). Through the love of God the Father, Jesus the Son is able to create a new family of God through this adoption (1 John 3:2). The challenge for the children now is to live in this world in the hope of the full revelation of who we will become in this new relationship. It is this hope that leads to right action in the world (1 John 3:3).
The author goes on to contrast the behavior of the children of God with those of lawlessness, reflecting Jesus’ teaching in John 8 (1 John 3:4-5). The theme of revelation remains strong, reflecting John 1. There John the Baptist proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). Through his death, lives of righteous living were made possible for the children of God. Here, as across the Gospel’s last discourse, believers are summoned to remain in him by dwelling in and nurturing this relationship (1 John 3:6-7; see John 13-17). The justice, or righteousness, of God, therefore, will manifest in the children of God as a strong sense of ethics.
Indeed the hope of the children of God is union with God in his image and likeness. This ethic is once again 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. The author can thus conclude 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).
The collective summons of 1 John punctuates the Gospel’s teaching on believing in God as revealed through Jesus, the human Christ who is also God incarnate, and on loving one another as the ethic that naturally follows from living as authentic children of God. One’s relationship with God through believing in Jesus Christ empowers, enlivens, and sets parameters for the ensuing relationship with other people who are likewise struggling to live in an often-difficult world. The letter gives testament both to the powerful self-giving love of God through Christ in relationship with humankind, as well as to the profound frailty of the nature of that same humankind.
The open call for a community to live in equal fellowship through believing in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God and love of both God and one another is a vocation that every Christian can agree upon. This summons to relationship is never in question. The ability of humankind to live in this ideal, if unstructured, relationship in an imperfect world is. This is the ongoing challenge of living in community as children of God.