Commentary on 1 John 3:1-7
This passage echoes a prominent theme in John’s Gospel, namely, what it means to be children of God (tekna theou). John 1:12-13 declares that “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 man, but of God.”
The author of 1 John declares to readers/hearers that they are children of God, not by any merit of their own, but because God has shown such love for them as to call them God’s children (3:1). The “what” of verse 1 (“See what love the Father has given us…”) translates potapên in Greek, a word that can signify both quantity (how much) and quality (what extraordinary love).
Perhaps the division in the Johannine community1 had given rise to doubts about who were truly God’s children. The author reassures the community that if the world does not recognize them as God’s children, it is because it did not know Jesus as God’s Son (see also John 17, 14-16). As in John’s Gospel, so also in 1 John; the “world” (kosmos) often means the realm of unbelief and opposition to God’s purposes. Here the author implies that those who have separated from the community belong to the “world” in this negative sense.
The author emphasizes both the present reality of believers’ divine parentage (“Beloved, we are God’s children now…”) and the hope of its full realization when Jesus returns. While the contours of this realization remain a mystery (“what we will be has not yet been revealed”), we know that we will see Jesus as he is and that we will be like him (3:2; see also 1 Corinthians 13:12). The author declares that “all who have this hope purify themselves, just as he is pure” (3:3).
The nature of Christian hope is to live simultaneously in the “now” and the “not yet.” We are called to live into the future reality that God has promised. Perhaps this is the context in which to understand the following verses about sin (verses 4-7), which seem to contradict what the author has already said in 1:6-10. Whereas the author had affirmed in 1:6-10 that it is delusional for anyone to say that they are without sin, now he circles back to say that it is also delusional to think that we can abide in Christ and continue to sin as though nothing has changed.
The purity of Christ that is to characterize believers is not some esoteric quality but is manifest in concrete acts of love. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (3:16; see also John 15:12-13). This is the theme of the second half of chapter 3 (3:11-24), that God’s children are to love “not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18). Such love is embodied in concrete acts of giving and service. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (3:17).
1 John is in harmony with John’s Gospel in insisting on only two commandments, which are in fact two sides of the same coin: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (3:23; see also John 13:34-35; 14:1; 15:12-13).
Like John’s Gospel, 1 John focuses on loving “one another” or loving brothers and sisters within the community. Little is said about loving those outside the fellowship of believers. One could even ask whether the author shows love for those who were once part of the community but have left, as he implies that they are of the world (3:1), children of the devil (3:8-10), and even applies the term “anti-Christ” to them (2:22; 4:3).
In communities torn apart by conflict, there is often a tendency for each side to see things in black and white categories and to demonize the other side. The challenge for leaders is to know where and how to set clear boundaries to guard against theology and practices that are harmful to the community, while at the same time demonstrating God’s love to those who push the boundaries or traverse them altogether.
1 John gives us an example of boundary-setting but is perhaps not so helpful for encouragement to love adversaries. For the latter we need to consider other portions of Scripture. The preacher should not be afraid to balance the polemical tendencies of 1 John with other scriptural texts that speak of love for enemies. In Matthew 5:43-48, for example, Jesus commands love for enemies as behavior befitting children of the heavenly Father.
In any case, the author’s purpose in this passage is to reassure a community troubled by the departure of some of its members that God’s claim on their lives has not changed. They are God’s beloved children, called into fellowship with the Father and the Son, called to grow evermore into the likeness of the One who has called them, anticipating the day when he will be fully revealed.
- See my commentary on 1 John 1:1–2:2.