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First John 2:3-17

I.               Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4

II.             The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27

A.             The Moral Test (1) - 1:5-10

B.             A Digression: God's provision and assurance of salvation - 2:1-2

C.             The Moral Test (2) - 2:3-6

Here John makes his second application of the moral test.

1.              the keeping of his commandments is the proof of a genuine knowledge of God - 2:3

On the knowledge of God - (a) in the OT: Prov. 3:6; 11:9; Hosea 4:1,2,6; Jer. 31:33-34; Hab. 2:14; Jer. 9:23-24; (b) in the NT: Mt. 11:27; 1 Cor. 13:12; John 17:3; Eph. 1:15-18; 4:11-13; Phil. 3:8-10; Col. 1:9-10; 1 John 5:20. "'Knowledge' of God in the biblical sense," notes Smalley, "is not [merely] intellectual and speculative, but experimental and dynamic. . . . In other words, to 'know' God is not [merely] a matter of correct thought-processes, but of a genuine spiritual relationship" (45).

John is as concerned with confirming the true Christian as he is with exposing the false. Hence, in 2:3 he provides a guideline by which we may know that we have come to know Him. Several things to note:

*          Note the characteristic phrase "by this we know" (2:5-6; 3:10,16,19,24; 4:2-3; etc.

*          Observe the change in verb tense: "And by this we know (present tense) that we have come to know (perfect tense) Him." The perfect tense points to a time in the past when we came to know Him through faith in Christ (i.e., at conversion). The perfect also stresses that this knowledge was not only obtained in the past but continues into the present. It is a knowledge once obtained and still abiding. The present tense "we know" stresses the continuing reality of one's knowledge of God. We learn to perceive more and more clearly that our knowledge is genuine because of its power to produce fruit.

*          The sign or test (keeping God's commands is not the condition but the consequence of knowing God) of a genuine saving knowledge of God is "keeping (again, present tense) his commandments." This phrase is distinctly Johannine (12x in gospel, 6x in epistle, 6x in Revelation; elsewhere only in Mt. 19:17; 1 Tim. 6:14).

*          To "keep" God's commandments refers to more than mere outward observance of the letter of the law (even a Pharisee can do that). Rather, it denotes a sympathetic obedience to the spirit of the law as well, an inward delight and cherishing of what God says.

*          Objection: "But then no one knows God at all because no one perfectly keeps his commandments!" Marshall answers: "It would surely be as unreasonable to say that perfect obedience was the necessary sign of true spiritual knowledge as it would be to say that a person must be totally sunk in sin before we can say that he is ignorant of God. Plainly, therefore, John cannot be saying that perfect obedience to God's commandments is necessary before we can say that we know him; otherwise, he would be contradicting his own teaching that none of us can say that we are without sin. The question is whether I am trying (and to some extent succeeding) to keep God's commandments" (123-24). Calvin concurs: "He does not mean that those who wholly satisfy the Law keep his commandments . . . but those who strive, according to the capacity of human infirmity, to form their life in obedience to God" (246).

2.              the claim to know God, if not accompanied by obedience to his commands, is worthless - 2:4

This verse is similar to 1:6. That "to know God" is synonymous with salvation is evident from John 17:3. Here we see that true knowledge of God is never merely intellectual. Saving knowledge of God is a matter of both "head" and "heart".

3.              the love of God is perfected in the one who keeps his word - 2:5a

His "word" (logos) is the complete revelation of his will, of which his commandments are the many parts. What does the "love of God" mean?

*          God's love for us (subjective genitive; cf. 4:9)?

*          Our love for God (objective genitive)?

*          Love like God's love (qualitative genitive)?

Probably, our love for God is meant. Hence, the proof of love is loyalty, i.e., obedience. See John 14:15; 1 John 5:3. "True love for God is expressed in moral rectitude: if we love God at all, we shall want to obey him" (Smalley, 49).

4.              true knowledge of God produces not only obedience but also imitation - 2:5b-6

"We cannot claim to abide in Him unless we behave like Him" (Stott, 92). Here we see that the earthly life of Jesus is an example for Christians, something to be copied (cf. 1 Pt. 2:21; Phil. 2:5-11; etc.).

What does it mean to "abide" in him? The Greek meno is found 113x in the NT, 67 of which are in John's writings, 23 of which are in 1 John (see 2:6,10,14,17,19,24(3),27(2),28; 3:6,9,14,15,17,24(2); 4:12,13,15,16(2)). The basic meaning is to remain or continue for a time. In short, to abide = to be a Christian. Smalley prefers to render this, "exist in God." See John 8:30-31. Abiding is the evidence of spiritual life. One proves the reality of one's profession by continuance in faith. Says Morris, "it is probably significant that Jesus does not say 'you will be', but 'you are' my disciples. He is not laying down a condition of discipleship, but telling them in what discipleship consists. When a man abides in Christ's word, then he is a true disciple" (457).

D.            The Social Test (1) - 2:7-11

1.              the commandment to love one another is both "old" and "new" - 2:7-8

The commandment in view is clearly love of the brethren. In one sense it is old, insofar as they had learned it before (Lev. 19:18); they had known it from the beginning of their Christian lives. Yet, Christ had invested this command with a richer and deeper meaning. It is new because of the standard by which it is now to be expressed: we are now to love "even as I [Christ] have loved you" (John 13:34). It is one thing to love your neighbor "as you love yourself." It is another thing to love your neighbor "as Christ loves you!"

2.              the hating of one's brother betrays the claim to salvation and reveals that one is still in darkness - 2:9-11

Here the falsity of the claim to be "in the light" (one is either in light or darkness; there is no "twilight"!) is revealed not by disobedience but by hatred. "The assertion is not simply characterized as false or as revealing a false nature: it involves the existence of a moral state the exact opposite of that which is claimed" (Westcott, 56). The one who truly knows God and truly is in the light will obey God's commands and love his brother. Says Stott, concerning vv. 10-11:

"The light shines on our path, so that we can see clearly and so walk properly. If we love people, we see how to avoid sinning against them. The man with hatred in his heart, however, because he is in darkness, also walketh in darkness. . . . Hatred distorts our perspective. We do not first misjudge people and then hate them as a result; our view of them is already jaundiced by our hatred. It is love which sees straight, thinks clearly, and makes us balanced in our outlook, judgments, and conduct" (95).

Q: In v. 10, is it the man himself who does not stumble, or is it that he doesn't cause others to stumble?

Also, I don't believe John is suggesting that his opponents literally hated all the 'brothers, i.e., all believers. 'It is more likely that the brothers they hated were the author himself and those who belonged to his group (Kruse, 85).

E.             A Digression: assurance about John's readers - 2:12-14

Having abruptly concluded his first application of the social test, John does not want to give his readers the impression that he thinks they are in darkness or that he doubts their conversion experience. It is the false teachers whom he has in mind, not loyal, obedient members of the church. So here he digresses briefly to reassure them of their status in the body of Christ.

Several observations are in order:

1.              Note the word "because". If "because" is the correct rendering, John is saying: "Since these things are true of you, I felt it important to write this epistle to deepen your assurance of faith and with additional instructions about how you should live out your life in Christ." Others argue that we should render the Greek hoti as 'that and understand John to be affirming 'that their sins have been forgiven.

2.              In these three verses John makes six statements about his readers, three of which are introduced by the present tense "I am writing," and three by the aorist (past) tense "I wrote." Why the change in tense? Options:

*          The present tense refers to this epistle (1 John) and the aorist refers to a previous letter (perhaps the gospel of John).

*          The present tense refers to the whole of 1 John and the aorist refers to the first part of the letter (i.e., that part preceding 2:12 = 1:1-2:11).

*          Some say John was interrupted at the end of v. 13 and that when he resumed he repeated what he had just written, changing from the present tense to the aorist.

*          "Most writers," says Marshall, "explain the use of the verb in these two tenses as a matter of stylistic variation, perhaps to relieve the monotony of 'I write" occurring six times over. In Greek it was possible to use the past (aorist) tense in a letter with the effect of a present tense: the writer projected himself forward in time to the situation of his recipient for whom the writing of the letter would be a past event. Hence, looking at things from the recipient's point in time, the correct tense would be 'wrote' rather than 'am writing.' In this way, John made use of a stylistic device to enable him to repeat certain things for emphasis" (135-36).

3.              What is the meaning of "little children," "fathers," "young men"? Options:

*          the distinction is one of physical age

*          these labels refer to stages in their spiritual development (little children = new believers; fathers = mature believers; young men = between the other two)

*          the designation "little children" embraces all his readers (cf. 2:1,18,28; 3:7,18; etc.), who are then divided into two groups: "fathers" (mature in the faith) and "young men" (immature" or perhaps just chronologically young in faith); or perhaps "fathers" and "young men" = older and younger members respectively (cf. 1 Tim. 5:1ff.; Titus 2:1-8; 1 Pt. 5:1-5). Some have even suggested that John has church offices in mind, hence by "fathers" he means the Elders of the church and by "young men" he means the Deacons. There is little to support this latter viewpoint.

4.              the distinction between "little children" in 2:12 (teknia) and "children" of 2:13b (paidia) - the former stresses the community of nature and kinsmanship between parent and child whereas the latter stresses the need for moral training and guidance.

5.              the perfect tense is used in all six of these statements (perfect tense = past action with continuing results into the present time).

6.              victory over Satan - although there is still a struggle for us all, in another sense the war has already been won! Note well: "you" (because of your relationship to Him [Jesus] who achieved victory on your behalf and now empowers you to stand firm) have conquered the evil one (cf. 4:4).

7.              according to v. 12, forgiveness of sins is "for His names's sake". What significance is there in this? What does this tell us about the ultimate motivation in God's heart for his redemptive work in Christ? See Psalm 23:3.

8.              concerning the assurance of salvation in these verses, Marshall comments:

"It is good for Christians to be reminded in this way of their spiritual standing. Too often we have to hedge such declarations with conditions: 'We can be sure we know him --- if we obey his commands' (2:3). Of course this is necessary to avoid complacency and moral laxity. But it is possible to make Christian salvation into a very precarious possession that needs to be re-possessed every moment; such a faith lacks self-confidence. It is good to remember that in the last analysis our salvation depends on the promise and power of God, so that we can boldly declare that we have peace with God and that we know whom we have believed. John's statements here are meant to awaken such confidence among his readers (cf. 5:13) . . . Nor should we be reticent in expressing the joy that comes from this knowledge:

'Let those refuse to sing

Who never knew our God;

But servants of the heavenly King

May speak their joys abroad'" (141).

F.             A Digression: a warning not to love the world - 2:15-17

Again, Stott places this paragraph in the flow of John's argument:

"John now turns from a description of the Church to a description of the world and instruction about the Church's attitude to it. In so doing he changes from affirmations about the Christian's standing to warnings about their behavior. The characteristic tense of this paragraph is not the perfect indicative but the present imperative: love not the world. Christian people have entered into a great inheritance in the forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God and the conquest of the wicked one, but their temptations have not come to an end" (98).

John gives two reasons why we should not love the world:

1.              don't love the world because such love is incompatible with loving the Father - 2:15-16

*          Does this conflict with John 3:16? There God loves the world but here we are told that such love is evil. However, the "world" is different in the two texts. In John 3:16 the world = humanity as fallen and in need of redemptive grace. In 1 John 2:15 the world = the Satanically inspired system of hostility and opposition to God. Also, the nature of the "love" in each case is different. In 3:16 "love" = redemptive, saving love. In 2:15 "love" = the selfish love of indulgence. In 3:16 it is God's desire to save the sinner, whereas in 2:15 it is the individual's desire to share the sinner's sin.

*          Love for the world and love for the Father are mutually exclusive (cf. James 4:4). John has in mind materialism. Says F. F. Bruce: "The 'desire of the flesh' and the 'desire of the eyes' and the 'pretentiousness of life', as it may be rendered, comprise the outlook which is commonly designated materialism. Worldliness does not reside in 'things,' but it does certainly reside in our concentration on 'things'. If our affections, instead of being set on what is of permanent importance, are set on passing things that the heart desires and the eye delights in, or things that encourage us to have a good conceit of ourselves, we are fearfully impoverished. If my reputation, my 'public image', matters more to me than the glory of God or the well-being of my fellows, the 'pretentiousness of life' has become the object of my idol-worship" (61). Again, "the one effective antidote to worldliness is to have one's heart so filled with the Father's love that it has no room for any love that is incompatible with that" (62).

*          "Lust of the flesh" (i.e., the lust produced by or that proceeds from the flesh; a subjective genitive) = the evil inclination of the sin principle that dwells within each of us. It is "in the world" insofar as the world is its sphere of operation. This lust includes but is more than sexual desire; it is any and every desire that competes with the soul's satisfaction with God. "Sin is what you do when your heart is not satisfied with God" (John Piper).

Note: The word translated 'lust (epithumia) is found 38x in the NT, only three of which have a positive connotation (Lk. 22:15; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 2:17).

*          "Lust of the eyes" refers to temptations that assault us from without. John has in mind 'those sinful cravings which are activated by what people see, and lead to covetousness (Kruse, 95). Greed may be particularly in view.

*          "The pride of life" is the arrogance and vainglory relating to the external circumstances of life; i.e., the tendency to impress others with our wealth, position, influence, physical prowess or beauty, etc. "John," notes Burge, "has in mind an attitude of pretentious arrogance or subtle elitism that comes from one's view of wealth, rank, or stature in society. It is an overconfidence that makes us lose any notion that we are dependent on God" (116).

2.              don't love the world because it and its lusts are transient - 2:17

*          "Its lust" (subjective genitive) = the lust which the world stimulates

*          "The one who does the will of God" = again note the present tense (literally: "the one who is doing the will of God").