Jottings from John’s First Epistle (Paper 4)
Dennis Williamson, Belfast
Two different words for knowledge are used throughout the Epistle, and it is important to trace them in their context. In 2. 29 both are referred to. Three things are emphasised (a) Revelation - we "know that he is righteous". Such knowledge can only come from our relationship to Him. Here the word means to know intuitively, knowledge simply possessed, because of the divine nature within. Every true believer is inwardly conscious of the fact that the Lord is righteous, as already stated in 2. 1. (b) Recognition -we "know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him." Know ledge here is that gained by experience. We get to know, or recognize, that everyone that doeth righteousness is born of God. The practice of unrighteousness is completely out of keeping with our relationship. From chapter 1 the apostle has been stressing the truth that "like begets like", a principle found from Genesis 1 "after his kind". In spite of man's complex attempts at mixture in various areas, this principle remains, as do all which find their origin in God. His original thought is His final thought; no apparent disruption by man can frustrate this, (c) Regeneration - "born of him". Before the writer shows his readers the family of God in the world in chapter 3, he wants to impress upon them from the outset the truth of their fundamental difference to that world as the children of God, so that they may conduct themselves accordingly by living in the good of that relationship. Note the seven references in the Epistle to the new birth: 2. 29; 3. 9; 4. 7; 5. 1,4, 18.
The Manner of Divine Love, 3.1. "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us." As the children of God, not only do we have an imparted life but also an imparted love, given us as a permanent possession. That love cannot be equated with anything that we have seen or heard on the level of this world. It is altogether other-worldly, demonstrated to us first at Calvary, Rom. 5.8, and shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit when we received the message, v.5. Brought into this inseparable relationship with the Father, we stand unrecognised by the world on the one hand, but destined for glory on the other. How needful for us to learn the Father's mind in this way! When we come to the Lord Jesus, at first we are willing to give up our friends for His sake. What a difference when the world comes to give us up! As one has said, "We find we had a desire for its charms we were not aware of. To realize at such times the manner of the love of God diffused in our souls is to feel our hearts being lifted to another sphere altogether. The fact is, we are now presently the children of God, but all the glory of that relationship has not yet been made manifest. One day He shall say, "Behold I and the children which God hath given me", Heb. 2.13. Those who now as His children partake of His character and rejection, shall then partake of His glory. "We shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is", 1 John 3.2. What a hope! And this thought of hope does not convey doubt, but as set on Christ it cannot fail; thus it produces a moral purity, a freedom from contamination, even as He is (intrinsically) pure. This is the only reference to hope in the Epistle, and directs our hearts to the person on whom our every blessing is based for time and for eternity.
Righteousness and love are interwoven throughout the chapter. We cannot express the one at the expense of the other if we would display the character of the Father. From verses 4—6 we have two streams, "whosoever committeth" and "whosoever abideth", traced to two sources "of the devil" of "of God", vv. 7-10, expressed by two sons Cain and Abel, vv. 11-12, and revealing two states "death" or "life", v.14. It is evident that the apostle has a clear appreciation of the character of God. He speaks openly; no one is left in doubt. The words "committeth", "abideth", "sin-neth" reveal constant practice. Character is not discerned by isolated incidents in one's life; it is seen by general behaviour. David was a man after God's own heart even though on one occasion he sinned grievously; the same with Peter, etc. We must remember that neither of these men would say, as some infer today, that they were better spiritually afterwards because of these experiences. The principle in the Word of God is that obedience, not disobedience, brings spiritual blessing! Let us keep these lines of truth clear in our minds. The Satanic deception is that one can have fellowship with God and with sin at the same time; hence the warning given by John, "let no man deceive you", v.7.
The Lord Jesus was "manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin", v.5. He is sinless, He is pure, He is righteous. How the apostle exalts the Lord Jesus Christ! The character of God was fully manifest in Him; indeed in Him "dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily", Col. 2.9. Another reason is given in the passage for His manifestation, "that he might destroy the works of the devil", v.8. Whatever apparent cohesion there might have been in the works of the devil before the cross, the Person of Christ exposed that fully and finally at Calvary. Based on this two-fold manifestation, a twofold implication is revealed. (1) How can I continue in sin if He died to take it away? (2) How can I say that He was manifested to destroy (undo, unloose) the works of the devil if they are not destroyed in my life? Wholesome questions like these enhance the force of the teaching advanced by the apostle. We need to remind ourselves that he is speaking of the normal Christian life. Summarising the section in verses 9-10, John says "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God". One cannot practice sin and belong to God. The one cancels the other. The principle of the divine nature within the believer (i.e. His seed) means that the believer cannot continue in sin. Strong as this language might appear in our day, the writer would invite us all to measure ourselves against the truth of God.
The Message of Divine Love, v.ll. "That we should love one another". Based upon the relationship alluded to at the commencement of the chapter, we see that righteouness and love are indeed linked together. In verses 4—10 righteousness has repeatedly come before us in all its clarity. Sin is lawlessness! — not merely the transgression of the law, but open rebellion against God, and this had occurred long before the Mosaic law was introduced. It is exemplified in Cain, who slew his brother, showing thereby that he hated him, indicating the source from which he came and the family to which he belonged. It is significant that the word twice used for "murderer" in verse 15 is only employed again in John 8.44 of the devil, showing the precision of Holy Scripture. As he continues to draw the contrast between hatred and divine love, the apostle tells us not to marvel. Just as unrighteousness militates against righteousness, so also do the unrighteous oppose the righteous. He uses the term "my brethren" here for the first time, and gladly associates himself with the saints in their reproach, as he does again in Revelation 1.9. Paul, when suffering, was happy to say of Onesiphorus "he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain", 2 Tim. 1.16-18. This is one aspect of reproach, but there are many others. The Lord Jesus endured the "gainsaying" of sinners. Oftentimes this becomes more difficult than physical pressure. "Because we love the brethren": this is the evidence of divine love not the ground of it.
The Measure of Divine Love, v. 16. No greater display of God's love could be conceived than that which was demonstrated in the sacrifice of Christ. "He laid down his life for us", v.16. We could have no part in that atoning work. Truly this is:
Love that no tongue can teach, Love that no thought can reach,
No love like His. God is its blessed source, Death ne'er can stop its course, Nothing can stay its force,
Matchless it is.
We may not be called upon to do things recognized as great in this world, to lay down our lives, or even risk them for our brethren. One example is given of what we may do in a quiet way, and which is acknowledged of God. He contemplates, not merely sees, the need of another brother. If such should shut up his bowels of compassion towards that brother, restrain a practical expression of affection for another member of God's family, the question is asked, "how dwelleth the love of God in him?" According to the context, it does not! This forms a suitable example for the practical exhortation to follow, "let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth". John is really saying that actions speak louder than words! The practice of love in this way is further evidence that we are "of the truth".
Heart condition is most important! Another Bible writer says, "Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life", Prov. 4.23, and "as he thinketh in his heart, so is he", 23.7. Even if we are not sure we have appropriated every opportunity to express this love, let us be certain of this, that we keep our hearts in tune with the heart of God, accepting that He has complete knowledge of all, others as well as ourselves. This will give confidence to our prayer-life. To speak to the Father, making particular requests without practical obedience, is to ask amiss. There are certain prerequisites for answered prayer, and obedience is one of them. The mention of the Holy Spirit in verse 24 provides a fitting introduction to the subject of chapter 4.