First John 3:10b-24
I. Introduction: The Apostolic Message - 1:1-4
II. The First Series of Tests - 1:5-2:27
III. The Second Series of Tests - 2:28-4:6
A. The Moral Test (3) - 2:28-3:10a
B. The Social Test (2) - 3:10b-18
At the end of John's most recent application of the moral test in 2:28-3:10, preparation is made for his second application of the social test (3:11-18). 3:10 is perhaps the most explicit statement in the epistle concerning the irreconcilable contrast between Christian and non-Christian. Christians are designated as children of God (note the immediately preceding emphasis on their being begotten of God) who may be recognized as such because they practice righteousness and love the brethren. Non-Christians are called children of the devil because they do not practice righteousness and care nothing for the brethren. It is to this latter notion of brotherly love as a criterion for determining one's filial status that John now devotes his attention. Simply put: whoever persistently hates the brethren is spiritually dead. Conversely, the genuine believer may know himself to be alive if he loves the brethren. Marshall explains the structure of what follows:
"The nature of brotherly love is illustrated negatively by the contrast with Cain who murdered his brother and positively by the example of Jesus Christ who laid down his own life for us. Each of these illustrations is followed by a corollary. Thus believers must not be surprised if they are hated by people like Cain, and they must avoid the feelings of hatred which are tantamount to murder. In the same way, the positive example of Christ's self-sacrifice leads to an appeal for a practical love which goes beyond feelings to costly sharing of one's possessions with the needy. In this way, the paragraph is both an appeal for love and an explanation of the nature of love by contrast with its opposite, hatred" (188).
1. the original message of brotherly love is here contrasted with the world's hatred of the Christian, a hatred illustrated by Cain's murder of Abel - 3:11-13
Cain is said to have been "of the evil one." This was interpreted by some Jews in the first century to mean that Cain was biologically of Satan, i.e., he was the offspring of a sexual encounter between the serpent and Eve (this was supposedly the essence of the serpent's temptation of Eve in the garden). This is known as the Serpent-Seed doctrine. But surely John's point is that Cain reflected the spiritual and moral characteristics of Satan, not that he was literally his offspring.
Cain "slew" Abel, literally, he slaughtered or butchered him (cf. Rev. 5:9). Why did he slay him? Jealousy, envy, resentment. The righteousness of the Christian will always appear to the world as arrogant conceit (cf. John 15:18-20).
[Having briefly mentioned the hatred which will inevitably arise from the world towards the Christian, John now speaks of that love which should permeate the church. As to its role as a test of authentic Christianity, love for the brethren is an evidence of life, as its absence is a testimony of death (vv. 14-15). Furthermore, the essence of such love is self-sacrifice as seen from the person and work of Jesus (vv. 16-18).]
2. the presence of love for the brethren confirms and assures the genuine Christian as having passed out of death into life, whereas he in whom it is absent abides in death, and is manifested as a murderer and one in whom eternal life does not abide - 3:14-15
The Greek word for brother is used 15x in this epistle and, with the exception of 5:16, is always found in the context of the social test. Therefore, it is not simply hatred, but hatred of Christian men and women that is in view. Eternal life is manifested not in love for mankind in general but in love for Christians in particular. See John 13:35.
John is again setting forth a test of life: a present, on-going practice points to a past reality. Love for the brethren now, in the present, is an indication or sign of regeneration then, in the past. Note: it should be stressed that active love is the sign of life, not its procuring cause. Our love for the brethren is evidence that we have been regenerated, that we have passed out of death and into life. It is by no means the condition for life. The person who does not love the brethren is exposed as yet abiding in death. Note: John does not say that if he does not love he will die, but that he does not love because he is already dead; death is his natural state.
3. the nature of the brotherly love required of all Christians is that of self-sacrifice - 3:16-18
a. the saving work of Christ bears witness to the self-sacrificial nature of this love - 3:16
Christ's self-sacrifice is not just a revelation to be admired, but an example to be copied.
b. this love is more than verbal declaration; it entails a practical communication of worldly resources to those in need - 3:17-18
Note the shift from the plural "brethren" in v. 16 to the singular "brother" in v. 17. We must be careful not to use "loving everyone in general" as an excuse for "loving no one in particular"!
Stott summarizes: "Hatred characterizes the world, whose prototype is Cain. It originates in the devil, issues in murder, and is evidence of spiritual death. Love characterizes the church, whose prototype is Christ. It originates in God, issues in self-sacrifice, and is evidence of eternal life" (144).
C. A Digression: assurance and confidence in prayer - 3:19-24
Although this is a digression of sorts, it is vitally connected with the preceding argument. Till now John has not only sought to expose the false "professor" of faith but also to confirm and assure the genuine "possessor" of life. However, Christians, being human and thus prone to sin, experience doubt regarding their relationship with God. John here addresses this reality and how it affects our prayer lives. Boice explains:
"To be sure, John has developed his argument concerning the basis for Christian assurance in a masterly way. But as a pastor he knows that in spite of all he has said there will still be some who feel condemned in their own eyes and who are therefore depressed by this and lack assurance. This self-condemnation can be due to a number of factors. It can be a matter of disposition; some people are just more introspective and melancholy than others. It may be a question of health; how a person feels inevitably affects how he thinks. It may be due to specific sin. It may be due to circumstances. But whatever the cause, the problem is a real one and is quite widespread. How is a believer to deal with such doubt? How can he overcome depression? John apparently recognized this problem as a real one in his time and therefore wisely interrupts his argument at this point to deal with it. How does a Christian deal with doubt? Although there are many causes for it, there is only one answer. It is: by knowledge. The Christian must simply take himself in hand and confront himself with what he knows to be true concerning God and God's work in his life. In other words, faith (which is the opposite of doubt), being based on knowledge, must be fed by it. This is the point that John develops at the close of this third chapter" (121-22).
John begins by dealing with the "condemning heart," that is, the Christian experience of doubt, and offers two ways to overcome such doubt and find assurance with God (vv. 19-20). In vv. 21-23 he deals with the result or effect that issues from having conquered the doubting heart, namely, a confident and fruitful prayer life. Finally, in v. 24, he closes with a word concerning the mutual abiding between God and Christian and the role of the HS in granting assurance.
1. the assurance of salvation may be obtained and the doubting heart pacified by reflecting on (a) our love for the brethren and (b) the omniscience of our heavenly Father - 3:19-20
Look at these two grounds for assurance together. We often ask: "Am I really of the truth, i.e., saved?" The verdict we often pass on ourselves is, "I don't know!" Robert Law explains:
"We believed that we had passed from death into life (3:14); but to ourselves this has become almost or altogether doubtful. When conscience summons us to the tribunal within, it declares us guilty. We have failed in doing the 'righteousness' of the children of God (3:10), or our faith has faltered --- our vision of the Truth has become dim. The evidence of our union with Christ is obscured by the consciousness of inconsistencies which, regarded in themselves, compel us to question whether we are 'of the truth' or have been self-deceived" (Tests of Life, 282).
"It may happen that when a person engages in . . . self-examination he is alarmed by the result. He considers his life and can only conclude that he falls short of the divine standard. He does not love his brothers as fully as he should. He cannot claim that freedom from sin of which John spoke earlier. How can he possibly belong to the truth when he feels that his actions belie it?" (197)
When our conscience accuses us in this way, to what shall we appeal? John mentions two things.
* The first answer was given in the previous context, vv. 11-18. The fact that we have loved in deed and truth and not merely in word. In other words, "there are actual things we can point to not things we have professed or felt or imagined or intended, but things that we have done, and that we know we would never have done but for the love which God has put into our hearts. Of ecstatic emotions, heaven-piercing vision, we may know nothing; but if, in the practice of love in bearing another's burden, in denying ourselves to give to another's need (3:17), we are sure of our ground, hereby we shall tranquilize our self-accusing hearts yea, even in the presence of God" (Law, 282).
* The other way of pacifying the condemning and disquieting doubts of our hearts is by our knowledge of God's knowledge of us. Stott explains: "Our conscience is by no means infallible; its condemnation may often be unjust. We can, therefore, appeal from our conscience to God who is greater and more knowledgeable. Indeed, he knows all things, including our secret motives and deepest resolves, and it is implied, will be more merciful towards us than our own heart. His omniscience should relieve, not terrify, us" (146). See also 1 Cor. 4:3-5.
To sum up, John appeals to two means by which we may pacify our doubting hearts. We may reassure ourselves of salvation, first, by looking back to the love which we have shown to the brethren; love in deed, however, not in word only. The second means of assurance is an appeal to the omniscience of God, regardless of what one's own doubts and misgivings might be. God knows us far better than we know ourselves. We should reassure ourselves by His judgment, which alone is ultimately trustworthy, and refuse to trust our own.
2. the assurance of salvation issues in a confident and fruitful prayer life for those who are obedient - 3:21-23
John now turns from the problem of a doubting heart and how to reassure it (vv. 19-20) to the blessing of an untroubled conscience (vv. 21-23).
a. confidence before God, the blessing of an uncondemning heart - 3:21
Simply put, as long as doubt or misgiving reigns in our hearts, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to boldly approach God in prayer. However, if we will but set our hearts at rest in the ways John has prescribed (vv. 19-20), then we shall be able to approach the Lord with boldness, a boldness that is expressed in making requests of him (v. 21).
b. answer to prayer, the fruitful issue for those who obey - 3:22-23
It should be noted that "John does not mean to imply that God hears and answers our prayers merely for the subjective reason that we have a clear conscience and an uncondemning heart. There is an objective, moral reason, namely, 'because we keep his commandments, and,' more generally, 'do those things that are pleasing in his sight.' Obedience is the indispensable condition, not the meritorious cause, of answered prayer" (Stott, 149).
It is important to combine this verse with the rest of Scripture on prayer. Prayer is to be "according to His will" (1 John 5:14), "in Christ's name" (John 16:23-24), "for God's glory" (James 4:2-3), etc. The meaning of vv. 22-23 in regard to prayer and its answer is best explained by Law:
"The key to the interpretation of the present passage is given in John 15:17 'if ye abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatsoever ye will, and it shall be done unto you.' It is no external and arbitrary but an intrinsically necessary condition of successful prayer that is here expressed. Our prayers are answered, because our will is in inward harmony with God's, the evidence of this being that we 'keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.' In our actions we prove that God's will is our will and when we pray, our will does not change. . . . The prayers of those who 'keep God's commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight,' are nothing else than echoes of God's own voice, impulses of the Divine Will itself, throbbing in the strivings of the human will and, in the mystical circulation of the Eternal Life, returning to their source" (300-01).
Simply put, obedience is the evidence that our will is in harmony with his.
In v. 23 John sums up the commandments (plural) as one command (singular), yet a command which has two parts: first, believe in the name of Jesus, and second, love one another.
3. a final word on abiding and assurance - 3:24
Having mentioned the issue of obedience to Christ's commandments in vv. 22-23, John feels it necessary before closing the paragraph to say something concerning abiding. His words are often taken as saying that obedience is the condition of God abiding in us and, in a certain sense, this is true. But here I believe the meaning is that obedience is the expression or evidence of the fact that we are abiding in Him and He in us.
Finally, lest all that has preceded fail to bring full assurance to the doubting heart, John appeals to one final source of confidence, the Holy Spirit. John says that yet another way of knowing that God truly lives in us is by the Holy Spirit who indwells us. But how or in what way does this assurance manifest itself? In other words, what does the Holy Spirit do which brings us assurance? There are two possibilities:
* Stott takes one view, what may be called the objective view, and explains: "The Spirit whose presence is the test of Christ abiding in us, manifests himself objectively in our life and conduct. It is he who inspires us to confess Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh. . . . It is also he who empowers us to live righteously and to love the brethren. So if we would assure our hearts, when they accuse and condemn us, we must look for evidence of the Spirit's working, and particularly whether he is enabling us to believe in Christ, to obey God's commandments and to love the brethren" (151).
* The other view, which I call the subjective view, is similar to the thought of Romans 5:5 and 8:14-16.
An Alternative View of 3:19-21
In his recent commentary, Colin Kruse argues for another interpretation of vv. 19-21.
* He begins by arguing that the Greek word in v. 19 translated 'assure (peitho) actually means 'to persuade or 'to convince in 42 of its 52 occurrences in the NT. It can also mean 'to trust (6x) or 'to obey (3x), but, says Kruse, 'it never bears the meaning 'to reassure' or 'to set at rest' (140).
* He then suggests that v. 19 should be read in the light of what precedes in vv. 17-18. John's point is this: 'Here is how you can know that you are of the truth. When you feel the fleshly, selfish impulse not to help your needy brother (this is what is meant by 'our heart condemns us), you must reason with your heart, you must persuade or convince your heart in God's presence so that you can make the sacrifice willingly. In other words, don't succumb to the temptation to be greedy and keep everything for yourself.
* What, then, does John mean when he grounds his exhortation in the fact that 'God is greater than our heart and knows all things (v. 20)? Says Kruse: 'The statement 'God is greater than our hearts' in this context seems to mean that God does not share in the meanness that is so often found in human hearts. His generosity is far greater, his compassion towards the needy much greater, than theirs. This fact should function as a reason for them to overcome the meanness of their own hearts and to seek to be like their God. When the author continues, 'and he knows everything', he is reminding his readers that any meanness of heart on their part will not go unnoticed by an omniscient God (141).
* Finally, 'if the readers' hearts do not object to their responding to calls on their generosity so that they actually provide the material assistance needed by their fellow believers, then they will experience confidence (parresia) in their relationship with God (142).