Jottings from John’s First Epistle (Paper 2)
Dennis Williamson, Belfast
Having emphasized in chapter 1 the fulness of forgiveness and the happiness enjoyed in the appreciation of the same, John now seems to anticipate that some might lean toward licence. If we can never be lost, and if we have constant recourse to the sacrifice of Christ, why strive after holiness? Like the apostle Paul in Romans 6, he would make an overt statement of doctrine to clear the ground. The practice of sin is totally incompatible with a place in the family of God. "My little children, these things write I unto you that ye sin not".
Standards in the Family. No full happiness can exist in a home until the children are in a proper relationship with their parents; so here. Those who belong to God's family must be aware of His character and authority. Three exceedingly important facts are accentuated in this early part of chapter 2 as the apostle, in unvarnished language, spells out (a) The Privileges of Relationship, vv. 1-3; (b) The Principle of Obedience, vv. 4-6, and (c) The Practice of Love, v. 7-11. Undoubtedly there is a divine order here. How can we obey without an understanding of God's standards? How can love be expressed at the expense of obedience? The answers are obvious. At times we appear to reason from man towards God, but this is futile and sure to end in disaster. God's standards are absolute; hence the need to approach things from the divine side, realizing the truth expressed by the hymn writer:
My times are in Thy hand, Why should I doubt or fear?
A Father's hand will never cause His child a needless tear.
The term "little children" is used by John in a two-fold way in the Epistle, representing two different words in Greek. The first word refers to our place in the family and embraces every child of God. The other relates to spiritual progress and is used only in verses 13 and 18 of chapter 2, indicating infancy in divine things. The importance of this is seen when we examine the mention of the all-embracing term (see 2. 1,12, 28; 3. 7, 18; 4. 4; 5. 21) and apply its teaching to all the family.
The first of these applications is "that ye sin not". To be related to One who is holy brings corresponding responsibility. Note the standard! Sin may now be legalized in the world, at times excused in the assembly, and minimized in private conversation, but let us be plainly aware that the Father's attitude to it is completely unchanged or modified by man's ideas. Do we really possess an acute sensitivity to holiness which makes us recoil from anything which might not bring pleasure to our Father? Or have such erstwhile feelings been numbed to any degree by our lack of communion? Shall we then remember how great the provision made for us and the cost of the same, allowing our hearts to be warmed afresh as we joy in the strength of a Father's affection for all His own? Who realizes like He the sorrow sin brings, the barriers created, the cost of recovery? He would remind us that a holy life is a happy life, and thus spare us bitter experiences. Let the standard of God burn into our very being, "that ye sin not".
The Privileges of Relationship. "And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father". This is the exception to the rule already stated. God has provided for every contingency. Habitual sin is not in question here as this would prove that one's profession of belonging to God's family is utterly false. What is in view is unintentional sin brought to the conscience of the believer by the Holy Spirit. Had we no knowledge of the extent of the provision of God for us, how discouraged and doubtful we might become. Without lowering God's standard one iota, John explains how the problem is righteously solved. The writer says "we have an advocate with the Father": note, not "with God", for John is not here speaking of the establishment of relationship, but of the maintenance of a relationship already established. Those in the family have already known the Lord Jesus as the mediator "between God and men", 1 Tim. 2. 5. An unbreakable link has been forged at Calvary, and made good to us when we believed. Yes, the One who faced the foe for us at Calvary now faces the Father on our behalf as His children. As our Advocate (Parakletos), He does not have to reason with the Father regarding our sins; His very presence there "toward the Father" as our Advocate, as Jesus Christ the Righteous, having been the propitiatory Offering for our sins, is completely sufficient. Not only did He make satisfaction, but He Himself is that satisfaction in respect of any obstacle which might otherwise mar our fellowship with the Father. On our side, this truth applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit, that other Comforter (Parakletos) within, leads to confession resulting in a cloudless communion. The Principle of Obedience. With John, truth is not merely a collection of facts stored in the mind, however needful that might be. It is indeed "truth in the inward parts" to be expressed in practical daily obedience. One who claims to know God, v. 4, to abide in Him, v. 6, to be in the light, v. 9, and yet without conduct to substantiate these claims, is false. Obedience is the test advanced throughout the Scriptures as to the reality of relationship with God. So many in the days of the apostle were intelligent, articulate, persuasive, but, like Paul in Romans 16. 17-20, John was emphasizing obedience. Why? Because this, more than anything, would prove the reality of their profession. The believers at Rome "obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine . . . delivered", Rom. 6. 17. They allowed the doctrine to mould them, forming character after God. Of all the servants of God, there was only One who did not need this moulding process. Our Lord Jesus Christ could say, "thy law is within my heart", Psa. 40.8. He was perfect in all His ways. Our chapter shows the writer looking for those basic elements seen in the lives of all "partakers of the divine nature". His "commandments", 1 John 2. 3, 4, as well as His Word are precious to us as His children. Keeping His commandments or precepts would refer to what is enjoined. Keeping His Word, we judge, might have the wider, deeper meaning not only of what is enjoined, but also of His understood (even if unexpressed) wishes; indicating an intimacy of fellowship which delights in all the delights of the Father. An illustration of this may be seen in the action of David's men, 2 Sam. 23. 15; 1 Chron. 11. 17, who, unknown to him, risked their lives to bring to him what they knew would give him pleasure, namely water from the well of Bethlehem. They were not fulfilling his command but responding to his desire. What unparalleled delight David found in such devotion! So much so, that he poured the water out as a drink offering unto the Lord. In our case, such constant delight in the Father's will indicates that the love of God has been perfected and stands completed. This signifies that the love which had its origin in God, now via the believer finds its terminus in Him.
The Practice of Love. That love does not stop flowing. The suggested circle embraces every child of God. The direction is first Godward then saint-ward. It is perfected as we have seen in verse 5, it is exemplified in the walk of the Lord Jesus, v. 6, and extended to each believer in verses 7-11.
In verse 7 the word should not be "brethren" but "beloved". Again, this word is not from the verb phileo, the love of the brethren, but agapetoi, divinely loved ones. This is the first of nine references to this word in John's Epistles, and it is instructive to observe that even as he seeks to correct the saints he does so in the light of the fact that they are the objects of the Father's love. How much we might learn from John the aged, the beloved, the seer. "No new commandment" — this is something about which you are already informed; it is that commandment that you had from the beginning, given in John 15.12 by the Lord Himself "that ye love one another, as I have loved you". Undoubtedly an old commandment relative to precept, indeed as old as the account of Cain and Abel, John 3. 11, but again new in practice, seen perfectly in the Lord Jesus, 2. 8, and in measure seen in the children as they walk as He walked. In such practice, the true light is now shining and the darkness is passing; the divine nature is seen to be revealing itself. Again the apostle would apply the test. What we claim positionally must manifest itself in practice. As already stated, true affection is first Godward, then it flows out to each member of the family. Hence if the latter is absent, we have reason to doubt the former. In effect John says, "to hate habitually one's brother is to reveal the absence of the divine nature".
A word of caution at this point may not be inappropriate. When the apostle is speaking of love, it is not to be equated with natural sentimentality which so often passes under this banner. The love of God is revealed by God in all the strength, righteousness and purity of His nature, fully manifest in the One who loved all that the Father loved and hated all that the Father hated, Heb. 1.9. May it be so with us in the measure that we seek to abide by His standards, and thus to give Him pleasure.