1 John 3

Characteristics of the Family of God
1 John 3
1 John 3. In the third chapter John returns to the subject before the parenthesis of 1 John 2:12-28, in which he describes the two leading features of those who possess eternal life; i.e. love and obedience. Here John describes the family of God. First, in v.29 he explains that those who practice righteousness do so because they are born into God’s family; i.e. they have a new nature. Then in vv.1-3 he describes the blessedness of being children in the family; the Father’s love and the privileges of it. Next, in vv.4-6 he contrasts sin and righteousness and how that relates to the children of God. In vv.7-12 he compares two families: the children of God and the children of the devil. Finally, he closes the chapter by dealing with the two leading characteristics of those who possess eternal life: love for one another in vv.13-17, and obedience to God’s commandments in vv.18-24.

The Children of God Practice Righteousness (2:29)

29 If ye know that he is righteous, know that every one who practises righteousness is begotten of him. v.29 Practicing Righteousness. Returning to his main doctrinal track, John states a characteristic of those who are begotten of God (i.e. His children). They practice righteousness. To practice something is to make it a habitual norm. Righteousness is consistency with one’s own nature. God is righteous, and the believer knows this about God and draws conclusions from it; “if ye know” could be “since ye know”. The standard is the righteousness that Christ displayed here below. All who display the “family character” are born of God. A believer may fail, but it doesn’t change what is characteristically true of him. God would remind His children of the family character, something already true of them.

The Father’s Love and Our Relationship as Children (3:1-3)

1 See what love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God. For this reason the world knows us not, because it knew him not. v.1 The Father’s Love. If the measure of the Father’s love is seen in the giving of His Son (John 3:16), the manner of His love is seen in the blessing that He has brought the believer into. The manner of the Father’s love is to set the believer in a love-relationship with Himself; that we are “called the children of God”. We are children in God’s family, and we have God as our Father. Amazing love! We, who were sinners by nature and practice, strangers from God, have been begotten of God, redeemed to God by the blood of Christ, and brought into His very family! We have the life of Christ, whereby we enjoy our relationship with God. It is characteristic of John’s ministry to use the term “children of God”, while it is characteristic of Paul’s to use the term “sons of God”. The former denotes family relationship, and the mutual blessing of all belonging to one family. The latter brings out our individual relationship with God, in both the intimacy of communion and also the dignity of that relationship. As children of the Father, we are not understood by the world, just as “He” (Christ) was not understood by the world. The family of God is totally different from the world. We have motivations, affections, desires, etc. that the world cannot understand. If being children of God is the result of the Father’s affection toward us, it is also the cause of the world’s alienation toward us.

Beloved, now are we children of God, and what we shall be has not yet been manifested; we know that if it is manifested we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
v.2 What We Are, and What We Shall Be. Although it doesn’t appear so now, we are the children of God. When the Lord appears the consequences of that will be manifested, and we will be totally like Him. There is a measure of Christ-likeness in us now, but the beauty of it is not apparent. Then the transformation will be complete. We will be like Christ, not only physically (Phil. 3:21) but morally too! The timing of this is not specified; it is merely “if it is manifested”. If it said “when it is manifested” that would imply a change at the appearing of Christ, but it is “if”, not implying a time. The actual change will take place at the rapture. The transformation takes place when we see Him “as He is”; i.e. as a glorified man in heaven (1 Cor. 15:49). The manifestation of “what we shall be” is at the appearing. Before the world, we appear as ordinary people. But we are really the children of God, and one day the dignity of that relationship will be seen when we are manifested as like Christ!

And every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as “he” is pure.
v.3 The Practical Effect: Purification. Seeing that we will be like Christ then, we ought to purify ourselves to be like Him now! It couldn’t mean “as the Christian is pure” because then there would be no need for the believer to purify himself. The true standard of purity that the Word of God sets before the Christian is that of Christ: “even as He is pure”. None of us are pure like Christ is. Nevertheless, the standard is nothing lower. This is an ongoing process that we often refer to as practical or progressive sanctification. Read more… The expression “hope in him” refers to hope that is in or founded on Christ, or has Christ as its object. The final result of appreciation of the Father’s love (v.1) is self-purification in the believer’s life (v.3).
And is it so! I shall be like Thy Son?
Is this the grace which He for me has won?
Father of glory—thought beyond all thought!
In glory, to His own blest likeness brought!1

Christ’s Separation from Sin, and Our’s (3:4-6)

vv.4-6 Having shown positively the effect of the Father’s love in the believer is that we purify ourselves according to the standard of Christ as He is now, John next shows other aspects of purity; i.e. how purity characterized Christ, and likewise those who abide in Him.
4 Every one that practises sin practises also lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. v.4 Practicing Sin or Lawlessness. While purity characterizes the believer, sin characterizes the unbeliever. John uses two words: sin and lawlessness. We might naturally think that lawlessness is somehow worse than sin, but John here states that “sin is lawlessness”. In fact, this is the most concise definition of sin that we get in the Bible. The introduction of the expression “transgression” in some translations gives totally the wrong idea. You don’t need to have a law in order to have sin (Rom. 5:15). We are not under law, but we are not free to be lawless. We are responsible to obey God as subject to Him (1 Cor. 8:20). Sin is “lawlessness”, or living according to our own will without reference to God or anyone else. Antichrist is the epitome of this; the “man of sin”, the “lawless one” (2 Thess. 2). Christ is the total opposite; “I delight to do thy will O my God” (Psa. 40:7-8), which follows in v.5. “Practice” implies a general course of things, like a doctor practices medicine.

And ye know that “he” has been manifested that he might take away our sins; and in him sin is not.
v.5 Christ Manifested to Take Away Our Sins. There are two manifestations in this chapter. The first to take away our sins (v.5) and the second to display glory (v.2). John brings out that the very purpose for which Christ came into the world was to put away our sins. To carry on with sin unrepentant flies in the face of the work of the cross. How this should motivate us to live holy lives! It is notable that Peter, Paul, and John each attest to the sinlessness of the Person of Christ. Peter was a man of action, and he said, “He could do no sin!” (1 Peter 2:22). Paul was a man of intellect, and he said, “He knew no sin!” (2 Cor. 5:21). But John was a man of intimacy, and he said, “In Him was no sin!” (1 John 3:5). “In him” is very deep. Pilate could say three times, “I find no fault in him” (John 19:6). His wife warned him, “Have thou nothing to do with this just person” (Matt. 27:19). 

Whoever abides in him, does not sin: whoever sins, has not seen him or known him.
v.6 Fellowship with the Son vs. Sin. A believer shares the life of Christ, and that life that does not sin. This is characteristic, but also practical. How do we not sin? We must abide in communion with Him, as the branches abide in the vine (John 15). It is impossible to sin when we are in communion with the Lord. If a believer gets out of communion, he then sins. A believer may sin, but that is not characteristic of them. One who habitually sins shows is a stranger to Christ. 

The Devil’s Family and God’s Family (3:7-12)

7 Children, let no man lead you astray; he that practises righteousness is righteous, even as “he” is righteous. v.7 Practicing Righteousness. John uses the word “children” to denote tender affection. There was a danger that the saints might be convinced to listen to someone who made a claim to righteousness, but without reality. John did not want them to be led astray by those who were false. If someone habitually practices righteousness, they are indeed righteous before God, because their walk manifests that they possess the life and nature of Christ. Christ is our life (Col. 3:4), and hence it could be said that the believer “is righteous even as He [Christ] is righteous”. All those who possess the life of Christ are the family of God, and are begotten of God (1 Jn. 2:29, 3:9), and manifest the family character of righteousness. But there is another family, and another family character (v.8).
8 He that practises sin is of the devil; for from the beginning the devil sins. To this end the Son of God has been manifested, that he might undo the works of the devil. v.8 Practicing Sin. If practicing righteousness marks out those who are children of God, then practicing sin marks out those who are children of the devil. From the very first time we are introduced to him – “from the beginning” – the devil sins. The character of a family is seen unmistakably in the parents, and the devil wasted no time showing his true colors. The Son of God was manifested to “undo the works of the devil”. If the Son came to undo the works of the Devil, how can one who imitates the character of the devil also share the life of the Son? This is impossible!
9 Whoever has been begotten of God does not practise sin, because his seed abides in him, and he cannot sin, because he has been begotten of God. v.9 The Children of God. All who have been begotten of God do not habitually practice sin. The reason given is that “his seed abides in him”. A plant’s nature and life is encapsulated in its seed, and the seed produces an offspring that has the same nature as the original plant. The new plant will produce the same fruit as the original. Plants that come from the same seed will produce the same fruit; “and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself” (Gen. 1:11). An apple tree cannot produce oranges. No more can the life of Christ in a believe produce sin. A child of God has a nature that is of God.
10 In this are manifest the children of God and the children of the devil. Whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God, and he who does not love his brother. 11 For this is the message which ye have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another: 12 not as Cain was of the wicked one, and slew his brother; and on account of what slew he him? because his works were wicked, and those of his brother righteous. vv.11-12 Righteousness and Love. John now gives two characteristics by which the children of God and the children of the devil may be identified. He has already covered righteousness, but now he adds a second; love for one’s brother. To “love one another” is a message “which ye have heard from the beginning”, something the Lord Jesus gave while He was here on earth (John 13:34). While it was the Lord Jesus who gave the apostles that word to love one another, love and righteousness have been the characteristics of the family of God since man was created. Likewise, the lack of love and righteousness have been the characteristics of the family of the devil since there was a devil. Hence John gives the example of Cain, who he says was “of the wicked one”, and killed his brother. John also brings out the moral connection between the lack of love and the lack of righteousness. Why did Cain hate his brother? John explains that it was “because his works were wicked, and those of his brother righteous”. There was a fundamental moral difference between Cain and Abel. The one practiced wickedness and the other practiced righteousness. As a result of this fundamental difference, hostile feelings on the part of Cain toward Abel grew, leading to murder. God’s approval of Abel’s sacrifice and rejection of Cain’s brought this jealous hatred out. When one has the sense that his own works are evil and another’s are righteous, hatred toward the other arises. Therefore, love and hatred are coupled with a deeper fundamental difference between believers and unbelievers. 

Hatred and Love (3:13-18)

13 Do not wonder, brethren, if the world hate you. v.13 The World’s Hatred. Having shown that Abel’s righteousness and Cain’s wickedness lay at the root of Cain’s hatred for his brother, it is no wonder that the world hates the believer. Cain marks the beginning of the world-system. As John says in the fifth chapter, the whole world lies under the influence of the wicked one (1 John 5:19). The world witnesses the righteous life of the believer, and cannot but hate him.  
14 “We” know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. 15 Every one that hates his brother is a murderer, and ye know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. vv.14-15 Love and Hatred of Brethren. Though the world hates the believer, the believer loves his brother . In fact, John brings out that this is a proof of salvation! Love for our brethren is something that assures our hearts that we are children of God, and that we have passed from death unto life. Notice that it is a one way street. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Death is where we all begin, because we are born with a fallen sinful nature, separated from God by sin. When we believe on the son of God, we Argue and eternal life, and we pass that divide from death unto life. It is a once-for-all transaction. Those who hate their brother are still on the other side of the divide. They abide in death because they have not received eternal life. John brings out that one who hates his brother is really a murderer, because hatred is the root of murder (Matt. 5:21). Sometimes we make excuses for evil when is it in its infancy. For example, we look lightly on hatred. But when hatred is taken to its eventual conclusion, it results in murder. When we look at murder, or someone who commits murder, it is obvious that “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him”. Therefore, says John, if someone hates their brother, they are not a child of God. Some have used this verse to teach that no one who commits suicide can go to heaven, because suicide is murder, and no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. However, we must understand that John is speaking characteristically. David committed murderer and we will see him in heaven. No one would say that practicing evil characterized David’s life. Rather, he was a man after God’s own heart, but one who had serious failures.
16 Hereby we have known love, because “he” has laid down his life for us; and “we” ought for the brethren to lay down our lives. 17 But whoso may have the world’s substance, and see his brother having need, and shut up his bowels from him, how abides the love of God in him? vv.16-17 The Standard of Love and Its Practice. Earlier in the chapter we saw that the standard of purity is Christ as He is now (v.3). Now we find that the standard of love is Christ’s love in dying for us. Love is ultimately manifested – even defined – by the self-sacrifice of Christ. This is how we know love. The result of the love of Christ appreciated in our hearts is that same character of love reflected toward our brethren. To lay down our life literally is the ultimate sacrifice (John 15:13), but as v.17 suggests this is broader than literally laying down our life (Deut. 15:7-9). Aquilla and Priscilla are an example where both are true (Rom. 16:3). Verse 17 makes this very practical. If one sees his brother in need and refuses to give of his substance, how could the love of God be in him? Considering what Christ did for us, the least we can do for our brother in need is to share with him what we have been given. The “bowels” are connected with our gut-instinct to show compassion on others. To “shut up his bowels” is to block the natural response. Judas was one without instinct-level care for the Lord Jesus. It is ironic that, when he fell to the ground, his bowels gushed out.

Reality Before God and Obedience to His Commandments (3:18-24)

18 Children, let us not love with word, nor with tongue, but in deed and in truth. v.18 Loving in Deed and in Truth. True love consists not merely of words, but of action (deed) and of real care (truth). One who truly loves his brother would never say the empty words “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” and not follow through with “the needful things for the body” (Jam. 2:15-16). Not that we shouldn’t ever express our love verbally, but it must be coupled with reality. The Lord Jesus is the perfect example! His love was dearly proved at the cross.
As Son of Man it was,
  Jesus, the Lord!
Thou gav’st Thy life for us,
  Jesus, our Lord!
Great was indeed Thy love,
All other loves above,
Love Thou didst dearly prove,
  Jesus, our Lord!2
19 And hereby we shall know that we are of the truth, and shall persuade our hearts before him — 20 that if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart and knows all things. vv.19-20 Reality Before God. When we love in deed, we are assured that we are of the truth; i.e. that we are truly children of God. This allows us to “persuade our hearts before him”. We do not need to persuade our hearts that we are saved, because as children of God we know our sins are forgiven. Rather, walking in reality before God, we can persuade our hearts that God hears our prayers (vv.21-22). Our heart may condemn us when we fail to show love in deed and truth. We only know our hearts in part. God is greater in knowledge of our hearts, and we can turn to Him who is the source of love, and cast ourselves in humility and self-judgment at His feet (John 21:17). It is more the matter of the heart than the conscience. God as Love is able to overcome our lack.
21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness towards God, 22 and whatsoever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments, and practise the things which are pleasing in his sight. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and that we love one another, even as he has given us commandment. vv.21-23 Boldness in Prayer. If we live in a way that is “pleasing in His sight”, such as giving to our brother who has need, then we have boldness to ask of God, and – our heart not condemning us – we will have confidence that He will give what is necessary to meet our need! God will not do less than us. We cannot out-give Him! When we are walking in communion with God, our hearts will rise up to make requests according to God’s will, not according to the desires of our flesh. The commandments in John are the commandments that the life of Christ in the believer loves to obey. Believing on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and loving one another are coupled together. There is an order: believe first, then love one another. But they are presented on the same level! It is essential the to the new life to believe on the Son, and it is equally essential to love one another.
24 And he that keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit which he has given to us. v.24 Obedience, Fellowship, and the Indwelling Spirit of God. The obedient believer therefore abides in God Himself, who is manifested in the Son. The Son is the communication of eternal life, and in possessing and enjoying that eternal life, the Son abides in the believer. The conscious enjoyment of this fellowship is all “by the Spirit” of God, which God has given unto us. This introduces the Person of the Spirit of God, who is the witness to us of all that God has given us in the Son!
  1. Darby, J.N. And is it so! Little Flock Hymnbook #18A. 1881.
  2. J.G. Deck. Jesus! That Name Is Love. Little Flock Hymnbook #109.