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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 John 3

 

 

Verse 1

The Love that Confers Sonship

Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God: and such we are.—1 John 3:1.

1. St. John writes this Epistle on the highest peak of the sunlit summits of God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ. The Epistle is full of brightness. Every sentence tingles, and pulses, and throbs with the joy of the daylight, and flashes back the glory in streaming brightness to heaven. “A new commandment write I unto you,” so the music flows on, “because the darkness is passing away, and the true light already shineth.” How John basks and revels in the sunlight! Light streams everywhere around him. “God is light.” “The light is shining.” “We walk in the light, even as he is in the light.” What has happened? The Dayspring has appeared from on high. The Sun of Righteousness has risen upon the world with healing in His beams. And then John sees the eternal light mirror itself on the clouded sky of this world in an arch of holy beauty, and his music grows soft and sweet as he sings, “God is love. Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”1 [Note: J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 323.]

The Missionary Ziegenbalg tells us that in translating this text with the aid of a Hindu youth, the youth rendered it “that we should be allowed to kiss His feet.” When asked why he thus diverged from the text he said, “‘Children of God!’ that is too much—too high!” Such shrinking was excusable in heathen converts, to whom these truths came in a burst of light too dazzling for their weak eyes. It is not excusable in us. In us it involves nothing less than a denial of the faith which is the sole source of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.2 [Note: F. W. Farrar, Truths to Live By, 188.]

2. The Apostle uses the word “children,” not “sons” as in the Authorized Version. He would call attention, not as St. Paul, who uses “sons,” to the adoptive act, but to the antecedent, eternal, natural relation. God has freely given us His love, in order that our title may be children of God—and, in the true reading, he adds, “and such we are.” Children we now are, in recognized name, in real fact; what we shall be hereafter we know not; but that shall be manifested in due time; and when it is manifested, then, beloved, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. When we wake up after His likeness, we shall be satisfied with it. The image which we now bear shall become the perfect semblance. We shall be like clouds, cradled near the sun, dyed, bathed, transfused with its glowing beams; their lurid menace softened, their darkness palpitating with reflected splendour—their very substance transformed from gloom to whiteness, from whiteness to crimson, from crimson to gold, from gold to sunbeams—changed into the same image, from glory to glory.

Oh! how shall I, whose native sphere

Is dark, whose mind is dim,

Before the Ineffable appear,

And on my naked spirit bear

That uncreated beam?


There is a way for man to rise

To that sublime abode:

An offering and a sacrifice,

A Holy Spirit’s energies,

An Advocate with God.


These, these prepare us for the sight

Of Holiness above;

The sons of ignorance and night

May dwell in the Eternal Light!

Through the Eternal Love.1 [Note: Thomas Binney.]

I

The Wonder of the Father’s Love

1. God’s love is original and spontaneous. Love is that mysterious power by which we live in the lives of others, and are thus moved to benevolent and even self-sacrificing action on their behalf. Such love is, after all, one of the most universal things in humanity. But always natural human love is a flame that must be kindled and fed by some quality in its object. It finds its stimulus in physical instinct, in gratitude, in admiration, in mutual congeniality and liking. Always it is, in the first place, a passive emotion, determined and drawn forth by an external attraction. But the love of God is an ever-springing fountain. Its fires are self-kindled. It is love that shines forth in its purest splendour upon the unattractive, the unworthy, the repellent. Herein is love, in its purest essence and highest potency, not in our love to God, but in this, that God loved us. Hence follows the apparently paradoxical consequence, upon which the Epistle lays a unique emphasis, that our love to God is not even the most godlike manifestation of love in us. It is gratitude for His benefits, adoration of His perfections, our response to God’s love to us, but not its closest reproduction in kind. In this respect, indeed, God’s love to man and man’s love to God form the opposite poles, as it were, of the universe of love, the one self-created and owing nothing to its object, the other entirely dependent upon and owing everything to the infinite perfection of its object; the one the overarching sky, the other merely its reflection on the still surface of the lake. And it is, as the Epistle insists, not in our love to God, but in our Christian love to our fellow-men, that the Divine love is reproduced, with a relative perfection, in us.

In my old parish there was a little loch in the midst of the forest, and I was fond of visiting it. Its chief attraction for me was the multitude of wild birds which peopled its banks and islets; and once I observed a novelty. I had been accustomed to see there all manner of familiar water-fowl—coot, ducks, swans; but that evening I noticed others such as I had never seen before—birds of brilliant plumage, crimson, blue, and glossy green. And I recognized them as strangers from another clime than ours, from some far-off land where the air is warmer and the sun shines brighter and paints everything in gaudier hues. I said: “These are no natives: they are foreign birds”; and I learned by and by that they had been imported from Africa.

And this is precisely the thought in the Apostle’s mind. “That love,” he says, “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, is a love which never sprang from earth’s cold soil. It is from some far-off region; it is from Heaven itself. Behold what unearthly love the Father hath bestowed upon us!”1 [Note: D. Smith, Man’s Need of God, 139.]

2. In the Apostle’s eulogy of love we find his memories of Jesus crystallized. To St. John the love of God was something more than wonderful. He was now a hoary-headed saint. He had laid his head in his youth on Jesus’ bosom, and was beginning to realize the love of God in Christ even then. Even then, as he looked up into those human eyes, the reality of God’s love had flowed into his consciousness. But there was more to be known than he knew at the supper table. As he stood by the cross, it may be that in those moments, when faith triumphed, the love of God became still more a reality. As he gathered with that little chosen band round the Person of the risen Lord, and saw that Face radiant with resurrection glory, the love of God was already a stronger power within his being. As the mighty Spirit at Pentecost came down and shook the house, and filled their hearts, and as he himself, as one of the first missionaries, went forth to tell the glad tidings of great joy, the love of God had already begun to be a stronger power within him still. Now, his head is hoary, the winter of age has gathered round him, life is fast receding, the world is disappearing, and eternity is drawing near. But it would seem that in each fresh step of his human career he had attained a fresh revelation of this Divine object, and now, in his last days, he calls upon all the world to gaze upon it, as if it were the most attractive of all spectacles. “Behold,” he says, as though he would fain draw aside the curtain of unbelief, and reveal to man that which man most requires to know,—“Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.”

The phrase which the Apostle employs is remarkable—“love the Father hath given to us.” Not the love the Father hath felt, or manifested toward us, but the love He hath given to us. It reminds us of another remarkable passage in the Gospel of this same Apostle. “God so loved the world that he gave—He gave—his only begotten Son.” As John began writing this sentence, “Behold what manner of love,” it would seem that the love gathered shape and form before his mind, embodied itself in the form of the incarnate Son. It refused to remain an abstract conception, a mere principle. It took shape, it became the incarnate love,—God’s unspeakable gift to man. And so John finished his sentence thus, “the Father hath given to us.” And then there was another thought that would suggest the word “give.” There was another way in which the Divine love was embodied before the eye of John. John saw that love embodied in the distinction, the honour, the glory conferred on those that believe in Jesus Christ. He saw the Divine love in the love-gift, the glorious bounty of God towards those who believe in Jesus Christ. And so John declares that the believer’s title to power and honour is God’s love-gift, the gift of His free love. You cannot go behind that love for an explanation. It is the gift of God’s free elective love.1 [Note: J. Thomas, Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 328.]

3. The love of God finds its type and shadow in the love of parents for their children. There is no love that we understand so well as a parent’s love. It is the first love we know, and every day of our early years gave us fresh and sweet illustrations of it. There is no love so pure, so disinterested, so unselfish. The affections of friendship and wedded life are strong, tender, passionate, and fervent, but in them there is always a more or less selfish joy. We get as much as we give. The parent’s love for a little child looks for no return. It is unlimited, uncalculating grace. It is given freely before there can be the least thought or ability to reciprocate it. It is given to helplessness, feebleness, ignorance, incapacity. It is an immense delight in that which has nothing to commend itself. It is an unbounded joy in that which by ordinary reason should evoke only pity. It is a holy sentiment which sets at nought literal fact and common sense. There is no logic in it. It has no apparent cause. It is inexplicable. It is one of the great mysteries of life. We should not believe it possible if we had never seen it; yet it is everywhere, and it is everywhere a symbol of the Divine, a proof of the Divine. The love of the Almighty for us is wonderful. It is well-nigh incredible. But there it is! “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”

I have a formidable book in my library which contains an elaborate treatise on Divine love. It is wonderfully clever. It soars through all the heights of metaphysics, and dives through all the deeps of mysticism; but though you are pursuing Divine love all the way you seem to lose it more and more in thick clouds of words, and at last give it up in despair. It is a wonderful relief then to come upon such words as these (you have not to wear the brain to tatters in comprehending them): “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.” God’s greatness we cannot grasp, God’s wisdom is unsearchable, but God’s love is something that any heart can hold and any mind picture. It is higher than the heavens and deeper than all seas, yet it is so homely and so human and so near that to realize it you have but to take some dear child of your own upon your knees, and express in tender kisses what you are to that child and what the child is to you.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough, The Cross in Modern Life, 64.]

II

The Design of the Father’s Love

1. God bestows His love in order that He may call us children. The Scriptures seem to run on two lines in their teaching about the Divine Fatherhood. In the Epistles it is always the followers of Christ who are called sons of God—sons and daughters of the Almighty—they only. But in the wider language of the Master the Fatherhood of God is as universal as humanity; every man, woman, and child received from those sacred lips his title-deed to a Divine sonship; every human mouth was commissioned to say “Our Father.” The larger thought and the narrower thought are equally beautiful and equally true. We are all His children by right; there is something of His image in all. There are possibilities of large Divine growth in all, and there is a place for all in His almighty heart of love. But only they who know it and rejoice in it are children in actuality and possession. Only those to whom it is an inspiration, an incentive to obedience, a source of immeasurable hope, a furnace kindling love, are sons indeed. The rest are children in possibility, but outcasts in fact. They have a great inheritance, but they are ignorant of it or despise it. They walk through life as orphans, though a Father’s love is ever stooping at their feet. It is only as we believe it that the wealth and dignity of it become ours. “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.”

2. The purpose of the Father’s love is not only to call us children but to make us morally and spiritually true children, to bring us into right relations with Himself. We might have been told that He is our Father by creation, and that He hates nothing that He has made; that He is “the Father of our spirits” especially, and would place a merciful limit to His contendings with us, lest the spirit should fail before Him. But we require something more than this. We desire a Father to look to, and love, and trust; a Father to run to in danger, and take counsel with in doubt, to listen to us when no other friend will, and to help us when no other friend can. We cannot bear to think that God should be indifferent to us, as if we were “the seed of the stranger”; but would fain feel that He loves us, as being His own children by adoption and grace. And, in Christ Jesus, we may feel this. We were made children by Him who taught us to call God Father. “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Our spiritual pedigree is traced easily. Faith makes us Christ’s; being Christ’s, we are made sons; being sons, we become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.

The words of the Apostle mean much more than that God is the Father of all men. Creation does not amount to parentage. All force and meaning would disappear from our text if we were to suppose that the power, the right, to become children of God, which is men’s as the result of believing in Christ’s name, was simply a re-statement of the doctrine of creation. We may use the fact that God has created us as the basis of our hope that men may become His children, but that does not identify creation with fatherhood. St. Paul said to the men of Athens, “In him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” But these statements are immeasurably below the truth. Paul held, in common with John and Peter, that believers in Christ are the children of the heavenly Father.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, The Eternal Son of God, 36.]

There is a Fatherhood of God, what the theologians call His creative Fatherhood, which includes all the race. There is still a higher, His redemptive Fatherhood, which includes all who come back home to the Father through Jesus. Man became a prodigal. He left his Father. He still remains a son creatively, but has cut himself off from the Father by sin. When he returns he becomes a son in a new higher sense also, a redeemed son. The Holy Spirit puts the child spirit into his heart, and he instinctively calls God Father again.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 146.]

I know of no satisfactory account of the Divine Fatherhood. Dr. Candlish wrote a book on the subject which I read thirty years ago or more; it did not satisfy me at the time, but I think there were some good things in it. I have often preached about it and have a theory; but I do not remember that there is anything to indicate my position in what I have published. The main points seem to me to be these:—

(1) Our ideal relation to God is that of sons; this comes from our creation in Christ.

(2) Sonship involves community of life—life derived from life. But the life of God has essentially an ethical quality; it is a holy life.

(3) Ethical quality cannot be simply given; it must be freely appropriated. We were created to be sons; but to be sons really and in fact we must freely receive and realize in character the holiness of God.

(4) There is a potency of sonship in every man, and ideally every man is a son; but it is only as a man becomes like God that he actually becomes a son. This, in the case of all who know Christ, is effected initially by receiving Christ; when He is freely accepted as the Root and Lord of life the principle of sonship is in us.

This approaches the Divine Fatherhood from the human side; but I think that it is in this way that we can best approach it.2 [Note: The Life of R. W. Dale, 654.]

Some time ago a woman died in an institution on Blackwell’s Island, who was found, afterwards, to have been a descendant of an English earl. Her birthright entitled her to a high position, but she had led a dissipated life and died a pauper’s death. With a name and a nature which unite us to God, shall we live like homeless waifs and die like paupers?3 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 213.]

3. In calling us children, God confers a new status, a high privilege, upon us. His desire is not merely to bring us into a true spiritual relation and condition, but to give us new rank, dignity and honour. It is the rank given by God to the children of the new kingdom, and this kingdom was inaugurated by the coming of Jesus Christ. From that there follow two or three important facts. The first is that the saints of the old dispensation did not obtain this honour, this rank did not belong to them under the old era. This is a new title, a new dignity. They were servants, not children. Our Saviour marked the transition when He said to His disciples: “Henceforth I call you not servants, but friends.” A closer relationship had begun. A new honour had been achieved. This is one of those things that the Old Testament saints did not receive, so that “they without us should not be made perfect.” The Scriptures also intimate that this rank, this status, is different from, and in some sense higher than, the status of the angels themselves. The relation of Jesus Christ to man is unique. “He laid hold not of angels, but of the seed of Abraham.” When He became manifested, He became manifested as the Son of man. And so man has entered into a unique relationship to Jesus Christ, and through Him to God, a relation closer, more intimate, higher, than the relations sustained to God and His Son even by the angelic hosts themselves. Now it necessarily follows from this that the unbeliever has neither part nor lot in such a title, such a distinction, such an honour as is here involved.

Corregio stood before a grand painting, enraptured; and as he gazed, grasping the sublime conception, amazed at the wondrous execution and colouring of the picture, he exclaimed, “Thank God! I, too, am a painter.” So, when a Christian looks steadily at what it is to be children of our Father, with sublime thrills of joy he can say, “Thank God! I, too, am a child of the Lord God Almighty.”1 [Note: G. C. Baldwin.]

4. Christ’s Sonship is the true type of ours. No doubt the only-begotten Son occupies a unique place. He is by nature what we become by grace. But on that account we can look up to Him, and see in Him our true ideal. Not once does He call any one father but God, while He hardly ever calls God by any other name. Nothing is more impressive than the filial consciousness of Christ. It sounds so natural on His lips. Even as a boy, the very first words of His that have come vibrating down to us through the ages have this filial ring in them: “How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be in my Father’s house?” Men noticed that He was eaten up with zeal for His Father’s house. It was His meat and drink to do His Father’s will. Every now and again we overhear an interchange of confidences and mutual understandings with His Father. Now it is a remark in a prayer, an aside: “I know that thou hearest me always”; or an “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.” Thus we might go on quoting word after word till the very cross is reached and He breathes His latest breath, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” What does it all say but this? The true filial spirit is one in which there is perfect understanding with God, from which all misgiving as to God’s will and purpose is banished. For Him misgiving never existed. For us it was there begotten of our own misjudgment of God through listening to the lies of the tempter. But it has disappeared when we become sons with the assurance of His forgiveness and good will guaranteed by the Cross of Christ. Now the attitude of the soul to God should be that of unfaltering trust, and constant anxiety to perceive and anticipate God’s will, gladly to accept it, and delightedly to fulfil it. It should be the reproduction of the example set in Jesus Christ, for, as Sabatier truly says, “Men are Christian exactly in proportion as the filial piety of Jesus is reproduced in them.”

All that we see in the Divine manhood of Jesus—such evident facts as the sense of the Father’s affection, the constancy of fellowship with Him, the knowledge of Him which comes in spontaneous movements of the heart, and shows itself in simple loyalty and unerring reading of His will—is the revelation of what is meant when we too are called children of God. We are very far from the realization of this; we are only little children, very imperfectly acquainted as yet either with Him or with the possibilities of our own sonship; children learning very slowly, and with much waywardness and indifference, what are our privileges and His claims. But we are children of God, as the cry, Abba, Father! bears witness. We make the child’s appeal to His tenderness; we feel the child’s shame when we wrong His confidence. In our penitence we say, “I will arise and go to my Father”; our submission is the utterance, “Father, thy will be done.” And our final hope is no other than conformity to the image of Christ: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him.” Christ will be the first-born among many brethren.1 [Note: A. Mackennal, The Eternal Son of God, 36.]

For what good doth it to the Soul to know the Way to God, if it will not walk therein, but go on in a contrary Path? What good will it do the Soul to comfort itself with the Filiation of Christ, with His Passion and Death, and so flatter itself with the Hopes of getting the Patrimony thereby, if it will not enter into the Filial Birth, that it may be a true child, born out of the Spirit of Christ, out of His Suffering, Death, and Resurrection? Surely the Tickling and Flattering itself with Christ’s Merits without the true innate Childship, is Falsehood and a Lie, whosoever he be that teacheth it.1 [Note: Jacob Boehme.]

Knowing as I do what the revelation of God means to me, knowing what God’s Fatherhood and the presence of God’s Spirit is to my own life, my whole heart goes out with infinite pity towards those whose lives are unblessed by what is to me the very pole-star of my existence. I cannot bear to think of some stumbling blindfold through the pitfalls of life while my hand is clasped by a never-failing Guide; or of others who look forward to the end of their earthly life with dread and trembling while I see only the outspread arms of the everlasting Father and the welcome of a life-long Friend.2 [Note: Quintin Hogg, 310.]

III

The Recognition of the Father’s Love

1. “Such we are.” The Apostle was not afraid to say “I know that I am a child of God.” There are many very good people, whose tremulous, timorous lips have never ventured to say “I know.” They will say, “Well, I hope,” or sometimes, as if that were not uncertain enough, they will put in an adverb or two, and say “I humbly hope that I am.” It is a far robuster kind of Christianity, a far truer one, and a humbler one, too, that throws all considerations of our own character and merits, and all the rest of that rubbish, clean behind us, and when God says “My son!” says “My Father”; and when God calls us His children, leaps up and gladly answers, “And we are!”

Luther started from the necessity of a “comfortable assurance.” Unconscious justification was not enough; a man must know whether he was being saved. And this assurance grace brought him, when it awakened his heart to faith; for anyone could tell whether he had faith or not.3 [Note: Viscount St. Cyres, Pascal, 247.]

O heart! be thou patient!

Though here I am stationed

A season in durance,

The chain of the world I will cheerfully wear;

For, spanning my soul like a rainbow, I bear

With the yoke of my lowly

Condition, a holy

Assurance.1 [Note: J. T. Trowbridge.]

2. How are we to awaken to our sense of sonship? “As many as received him, to them gave he power (the right) to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name.” None of us know Christ until He reveals Himself to us in our association with Him; and as we commune with Him, and learn of Him, He becomes more and more to us. Accept Christ for what you feel He can be to you. Admit Him to your friendship; He will admit you to His.

That day, if I had dared, I should not have set foot inside the chapel. I was out of humour, and certainly not the least inclined to endure the tedium of a sermon. To my great surprise M. Jaquet did not preach one, but began to read us a little tract. It was a sermon, but of a new kind: Wheat or Chaff, by Ryle [afterwards the well-known Bishop of Liverpool].

The title in itself struck me. “Wheat or chaff”—what does that mean? And at every fresh heading this question re-echoed more and more solemnly. I wanted to stop my ears, to go to sleep, to think about something else. In vain! When the reading was over and the question had sounded out for the last time, “Wheat or chaff, which art thou?” it seemed to me that a vast silence fell and the whole world waited for my answer. It was an awful moment. And this moment, a veritable hell, seemed to last for ever. At last a hymn came to the rescue of my misery. “Good,” I said to myself, “that’s over at last.” But the arrow of the Lord had entered into my soul. Oh, how miserable I was! I ate nothing, could not sleep, and had no more mind to my studies. I was in despair. The more I struggled the more the darkness thickened. I sought light and comfort in the pages of God’s Word. I found none. I saw and heard nothing but the thunders of Sinai. “Your sins: how can God ever forgive them? Your repentance and tears! You do not feel the burden of your sins: you are not struck down like St. Paul or like the Philippian jailer. Hypocrisy, hypocrisy!” insinuated the voice which pursued me. I had come to the end of all strength and courage. I saw myself, I felt myself lost—yes, lost, without the slightest ray of hope. My difficulty was, I wished I knew what it could be to believe. At last I understood that it was to accept salvation on God’s conditions; that is to say, without any conditions whatever. I can truly say the scales fell from my eyes. And what scales! I could say, “Once I was blind, and now I see.”

Never shall I forget the day, nay, the moment, when this ray of light flashed into the night of my anguish. “Believe,” then, means to accept, and accept unreservedly. “As many as received him, to them gave he power—the right—to become the sons of God, even to as many as believed on his name.” It is plain, it is plain, it is positive. “O my God,” I cried, in the depth of my heart, “I believe.” … A peace, a joy unknown before, flooded my heart. I could have sung aloud with joy.1 [Note: Coillard of the Zambesi, 19.]

The Love that Confers Sonship

Literature

Aitken (W. H. M. H.), Mission Sermons, iii. 129.

Banks (L. A.), John and his Friends, 108.

Bourdillon (F.), Our Possessions, 34.

Cooper (T. J.), Love’s Unveiling, 144.

Drummond (R. J.), Faith’s Certainties, 149.

Eadie (J.), The Divine Love, 104.

Farrar (F. W.), Truths to Live By, 184.

Gordon (A. J.), The Twofold Life, 77.

Greenhough (J. G.), The Cross in Modern Life, 63.

Gregg (J.), Sermons Preached in Trinity Church, Dublin, ii. 267.

Haslam (W.), The Threefold Gift of God, 66.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Christmas—Epiphany, 367.

Knight (J. J.), Sermons in Brief, 62.

Landels (W.), Until the Day Break, 79.

Mackennal (A.), The Eternal Son of God and the Human Sonship, 57.

Maclagan (P. J.), The Gospel View of Things, 57.

Matheson (G.), Thoughts for Life’s Journey, 192.

Newbolt (W. C. E.), The Gospel Message, 120.

Newman (J. H.), Parochial and Plain Sermons, iii. 172.

Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 295.

Perren (C.), Revival Sermons, 282.

Scott (M.), Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, 55.

Smith (D.), Man’s Need of God, 135.

Temple (F.), Sermons in Rugby School Chapel, ii. 71.

Thomas (J.), Myrtle Street Pulpit, iii. 323.

West (R.), The Greatest Things in the World, 75.

Wordsworth (E.), Onward Steps, 40.

Christian World Pulpit, vi. 184 (Mahan); xxvi. 107 (Beecher).

Church of England Magazine, xvi. 153 (Hitchen); lxx. 312 (Stevenson).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, iv. 220 (Moore).


Verses 1-3

III.

(2) THE DIVINE BIRTH THE OUTCOME OF GOD’S LOVE (1 John 3:1-3).—The thought of the new birth suddenly fires the Apostle’s mind with reverent amazement, in which he calls on his hearers to join. He then sketches some consequences of the Sonship:—

(a) Neglect by the world, just as the world knew not Him who made them sons.

(b) The future glory in the perfected likeness.

(c) The purifying result of hope.

Sons.—Rather, children. The asserted relationship is no mere empty rhetorical title. It is not only a comparison to point origin, dependence, sympathy, care, union, love; it is a fact. As our spiritual life comes from God, we have but to be conscious of it, and to claim its privileges.

(2 a.) It passes before St. John’s mind how strange it is that the stream of the world’s thought, the tide of the world’s history, should be going on as they had been before Christ came. Of how small account was the old man, at Ephesus, or elsewhere, in the eyes of the wise, the powerful, the popular! Why was this? Because God, manifest in Christ, had been unintelligible to the world as such, or, if intelligible, the cause only of antagonism. As far as the children were like their Father, so far would the elements that made up their character be antagonistic to the elements that make up the character of the world. For, as far as “the world” exists at all in the moral meaning of the word, it is a mixture of qualities and tendencies which may or may not be like each other, but which all agree in being opposed to true righteousness.

(2 b.) We can imagine some one saying in the room where St. John was dictating, or the thought occurring to himself, “If you say we are already sons, what shall we be hereafter?” We cannot say. It is not good for us to know. At any rate, there will be the perfected sonship, the completed likeness, the unquiet and rebellious children conformed to the Father’s character. (Comp. Romans 8:17-18; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Galatians 4:1; Colossians 3:3.)

(1) Of God.—Literally, out of God—a part of His holy nature. (Comp. John 1:12-13; John 3:3; John 3:5-6; Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23-24; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3; 1 Peter 1:23; 2 Peter 1:4.)

(2) For we shall see.—The old philosophical dogma, that if knowledge could be perfect it would necessitate virtue, is true in this sense: the more we see God in this life (provided it is a real sight) the more like Him we must be. When we are able to see Him, by entering on the glorified life hereafter, our likeness will have grown complete, and it will never again be able to be defaced. (Comp. Psalms 17:15; Matthew 5:8; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Revelation 22:4.) A true knowledge must be convincing; when we are permitted to see the actual truth in God Himself, it will be impossible for any corner of the soul to remain unconvinced, unwarmed, unrenewed.

(2 c.) St. John, as usual, turns gently to the practical side of his thought. If we really hold this glorious hope of the future likeness, it cannot help having a correlative force in our present life. Such a hope must be the mother of the determination to be purified here; the resolve to be rid of all pollution in body or soul, and to struggle free from the chains of sins. The word for purifying is applied in the New Testament—

1. To wisdom (James 3:17);

2. To vows (Acts 21:24; Acts 21:26; Acts 24:18);

3. To the Christian walk (2 Corinthians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:22; James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22);

4. To chastity (2 Corinthians 11:2; 1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Timothy 5:2; Titus 2:5).

Our Lord gives a list of things that defile in Matthew 15:18. St. John probably thought of Matthew 5:8 in thus connecting the future vision with present purity.


Verse 2

What We Are and What We Shall Be

Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is.—1 John 3:2.

The Apostle has just said that all Christians are children of God. Here he adds that they are now His children. “Now,” he says, in this life, with all our shortcomings, “we are children of God.”

But the future of the believer is even more wonderful and glorious than his present. He is to be made “like” Christ, because he will “see him as he is.” If the vision of Christ, even though His glory be only reflected as from “a mirror,” transforms us now “into the same image” (2 Corinthians 3:18), what will be the effect of beholding the unveiled glory of the Lord? Here His Godhead is only partially revealed to His disciples; there the Godhead and the manhood—or rather the Godhead in the manhood—will be fully manifested, and, according to Christ’s own prayer for His disciples, they will behold His glory (John 17:24); and the result of this beatific vision will be their complete transformation into the likeness of the Lord. In every part of their being, in body and in soul and in spirit, they will be “like him.”

As with a garden in winter, nothing we see in it tells us what it will be when the spring winds have loosened the frost, only we know that there is life beneath the snow, and that one day that life will show itself in leaves and blossoms and fruit. So with the believer. He will one day have a part in that glorious revealing of the sons of God for which creation is waiting. Meanwhile his spiritual life, like that of a plant safe all the winter in the root of it, is hid with Christ in God. More than this we cannot say of ourselves.1 [Note: C. Watson, First Epistle of John, 149.]

I

The Seeds of Destiny

1. We are children of God—His offspring, not His creatures merely. Ours is a Divine birthright, depraved, but not wholly obliterated; alienated, but not discrowned. Man still preserves his capability of regaining departed purity and felicity. What belongs to his character has been lost, what belongs to his constitution he retains. His character may change, but not the essence of his being. His enmity may die, his immortality never dies. His life is sacred, because he bears the image of God. Moral resemblance to God is the completion and crown of the filial relationship. It is the relation that gives the right; but where the relation has not been acknowledged and established, the right cannot be pleaded. The true child of God is born of God. He is a partaker of a Divine nature, and that nature quickens, brightens, perfects his own. He is “created anew in Christ Jesus.” “Ye are all the children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus.” “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.”

2. All natural sons are not spiritual sons. The natural son becomes a spiritual son when the Father’s will and purpose are made his will and purpose. We find this beautifully illustrated in the story of the Prodigal Son. The youth chafes under parental restraint, he is now a dissatisfied son; he leaves home and makes his abode in a far country, he is now an absent son; he spends his time and money in riotous living, he is now a sinful son; sin is always sooner or later followed by punishment, he becomes, therefore, a suffering son; grief and remorse follow suffering, as the morning follows the sunrise, he is now a sad and sorry son; sorrow turns into self-condemnation, he is now a humble son; he says, “I will arise and go to my father,” he is now a penitent son; his father welcomes him home with outstretched arms, he is now a forgiven son; the fatted calf is killed, a ring is placed upon his finger, and a robe upon his shoulders, he is now a restored son; from henceforth he makes his father’s will his will, his father’s pleasure, his pleasure, and he does all, not from duty, but from love; he is now, therefore, a spiritual son.

In dealing with a man of fine moral character we are dealing with the highest achievement of the organic kingdom, but in dealing with a spiritual man we are dealing with the lowest form of life in the spiritual world. To contrast the two, therefore, and marvel that the one is apparently so little better than the other, is unscientific and unjust. The spiritual man is a mere unformed embryo, hidden as yet in his chrysalis-case, while the natural man has the breeding and evolution of ages represented in his character. But what are the possibilities of this spiritual organism? What is yet to emerge from the chrysalis-case? The natural character finds its limits within the organic sphere, but who is to define the limits of the spiritual? Even now it is very beautiful. Even as an embryo it contains some prophecy of its future glory, but the point to mark is that “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”1 [Note: Henry Drummond.]

3. Though children of God by faith in Christ Jesus we are still imperfect, but we have in us the seeds of a great destiny. When we find fault with the child’s lesson because he has not begun his sentence with a capital or ended his question with an interrogation mark, the mother excuses him by saying, “He is only a boy.” Yes, but it is a great thing to be a boy, it carries the promise that some day he will be a man. The child who can as yet only stammer brokenly through a sentence, if in an educated home, or who can only blunder as yet through a sum in long division, if in a good school, has promise of one day speaking correctly and calculating the distance of the stars. Only a child, but it is a great thing to be even a child in such a home and in such a school.

I have stood on a projecting spur of a mountain range and looked backward on the road I have climbed and then far down into the valley below where I could see the farm-fields and the river. As I have rested there for a moment, I have felt something of the joy which comes with the heights; but as I have turned to continue the climb, I have found the way blocked with blinding mists and the higher ranges wrapped about with the dense folds of cloud and completely shut from view. I knew the heights were there before me, but I could not see them. They did not appear. And so I had to plunge into the thickening mist and continue the ascent without scenery. It is thus that John paints the second stage. The road winds through the mist. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be,” but the way is still upward and onward. We have not reached the summit, with adoption. Sonship is followed by development and growth. Here is the marvellous thing about the soul. It seems possessed of an infinite capacity. Man is ever becoming.1 [Note: J. I. Vance, Tendency, 214.]

An acorn is an oak-tree now; but it is not made manifest what it will be. You may bring all your microscopes and all your chemic tests to the acorn, and you will not solve the question. Had you never seen aught but an acorn—and you have never seen aught but a child of God in this reference, and most of them very young children—had you never seen aught but an acorn, no imagination within your reach, or the reach of any poet God ever gave to earth, would have brought you anywhere near the truth. Again, go back, with the help of the scientist, in the long history of this physical world and universe, and he will tell you of some such thing they have seen as this: that this earth and all related to it was, in primeval times, a fire-mist. Before the stars, before the suns were here, was some such thing, as unlike this earth as a globe of fire-mist would be. It was the solar universe; but it was not made manifest what it would be. And great as is the difference between the primeval fire and the solar universe of to-day, unimaginable as is the progress from the protoplasm, undifferentiated, to the human form in its athletic beauty, indescribable as is the difference between the acorn and the oak-tree, those differences, peradventure, are small compared with the difference between what we now are and what we shall be. In the acorn is the oak-tree, in the protoplasm is the lily, in the fire-mist, so they say, was the earth; in you is the Christlikeness, folded more deeply, with more convolutions, than the finest folded bud. Deep within you is the Christlikeness that yet shall be part of the final manifestation of God’s purpose and will.2 [Note: F. W. Lewis, The Work of Christ, 139.]

Lord, purge our eyes to see

Within the seed a tree,

Within the glowing egg a bird,

Within the shroud a butterfly.


Till taught by such, we see

Beyond all creatures Thee,

And hearken for Thy tender word,

And hear it, “Fear not: it is I.”3 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti.]

II

The Transfiguration of Character

1. Much concerning our destiny yet remains unrevealed. The Gospel is a light shining on the dark shore of eternity, like the lighthouse that gleams on a dark and stormy coast, to reveal the haven to the ocean-tossed mariner. It shines afar over the swelling flood, but only penetrating a darkness it was never intended to expel. It reveals to us almost nothing of the land to which we go, but only the way to reach it. It does nothing to answer the thousand questions which we would ask about that world, but it tells us how we may see it with our own eyes. It tells the mariner there is a haven there, and how he may reach it, and no more. It does not tell us all about the past, about our own mysterious being, or where in the wide range of the Divine dominions will be the sinless paradise of the redeemed; but it would guide us to God’s holy hill and tabernacle, where in His light we may see light, and where what is now obscure may become as clear as noonday.

There is a sublime reticence in Scripture. The man who was nearer than all others to the Source of eternal life is content to say, “It doth not yet appear what we shall be”! I think this is a typical silence—typical of the whole Bible. Men often say that the evidence of the Bible is the things it tells us. Doubtless that is one evidence. But I have often thought there is another—the things it does not tell us. The speech of the Bible may be golden, but its silence is at least silver. Many a book professing to bring tidings from God would have mistaken imaginings for realities, would have published the dreams of the heart as the very descriptions of heaven. The Bible commits no such mistake. Its reticence is sublime, as sublime as that of the starry sky. Enoch speaks not in his translation moment. Elijah speaks not in his chariot of fire. Lazarus speaks not in his hour of resurrection. The child of Jairus speaks not on her bed of revival. The youth of Nain speaks not from his arrested bier. Moses alone does speak from beyond the grave; but it is not of the things beyond; it is of the things “to be accomplished at Jerusalem.”1 [Note: G. Matheson, Leaves for Quiet Hours, 286.]

I know not where that city lifts

Its jasper walls in air,

I know not where the glory beams,

So marvellously fair.


I cannot see the waving hands

Upon that farther shore;

I cannot hear the rapturous song

Of dear ones gone before:


But dimmed and blinded earthly eyes,

Washed clear by contrite tears,

Sometimes catch glimpses of the light

From the eternal years.

2. This we know—we shall be like Him. Jesus Christ was transfigured before His disciples. That was a glorious manifestation, and when the three privileged disciples who beheld His glory on the Mount were permitted to do so, when the period of enjoined silence had passed, they testified to that glory in glowing words. And here we are told by one of their number that Jesus Christ’s disciples are to be transfigured, not now and here, but in the future life, at the termination of the present dispensation, at His appearing or coming. We are told that in that day they shall be like Him, like Him whose face when He was transfigured was like the sun, and whose raiment was white and glistering, and who will come forth in His second appearing in His own glory and in the glory of His Father and of the holy angels. In that day His disciples shall be glorified together with Him. Not all men, but His disciples, they who have received Him, who believe on His Name, and to whom He gives power to become the sons of God.

Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, being killed in the battle of Lutzen, left only a daughter, Christina, six years of age. A general assembly, consisting of deputations from the nobles, the clergy, the burghers and the peasants of Sweden, was summoned to meet at Stockholm. Silence being proclaimed, the Chancellor rose. “We desire to know,” said he, “whether the people of Sweden will take the daughter of our dead King Gustavus Adolphus to be their queen.”

“Who is this daughter of Gustavus?” asked an old peasant. “We do not know her. Let her be shown to us.”

Then Christina was brought into the hall and placed before the old peasant. He took Christina up in his arms and gazed earnestly into her face. He had known the great Gustavus well, and his heart was touched when he saw the likeness which the little girl bore to that heroic monarch. “Yes,” cried he, with the tears gushing down his furrowed cheeks; “this is truly the daughter of our Gustavus! Here is her father’s brow! Here is his piercing eye! She is his very picture! This child shall be our queen!”1 [Note: Nathaniel Hawthorne, True Stories from History and Biography, 281.]

I recall some years ago reading a sermon on this text by Dr. Lyman Abbott. All I can remember of that sermon now is a single thought in connexion with this passage. “Of all Scripture promises,” said Dr. Abbott, “the one that stretches my faith most is this: to think that poor, sinful, fallen man can become like Christ—that we who are unholy, impure, selfish, can become, like Him, holy, pure, unselfish, is beyond human comprehension. The how of it I cannot fathom, the fact of it I accept as one of the blessed promises connected with Christ’s coming.”2 [Note: A. Lewis, Sermons Preached in England, 176.]

3. Now this likeness to Christ is graven upon the soul, not suddenly, but slowly through the years. This is not a photograph, taken in a moment by a flash of the sun. By the regeneration of the Holy Ghost the nature is renewed, and the man is started fairly upon his new and noble work; but the precision and detail of the likeness, like the finished picture of the artist, are the labour of thoughtful and toiling years. Through many failures, through hurricane blasts of passion, and frequent rain of tears, through baptisms fierce as of fire, and exhausting as of blood, through toil up new Calvaries, and the passing through strange agonies, which, in their measure and in far-off and reverent distance, may be called the soul’s Gethsemanes—through all these must the believer press into that “mind which was in Christ Jesus”; and even at the close of an existence during which he has never lost sight of the purpose which came to him at the time of his conversion, he may feel that he has exhibited but an imperfect copy of his glorious Pattern.

Of Dr. Thomas H. Skinner, Professor Henry B. Smith said: “His personal power was also enhanced, year by year, with the increase of his spiritual life; he became more and more a living epistle, a gospel of God’s grace, known and read of all men. Vexed and perplexing questions were merged in a higher life. Revealed facts took the place of disputed propositions. The living Christ took the place of the doctors of the schools and with advantage. Thus he lived and grew day by day, in his serene and hallowed old age, toward the measure of the stature of a perfect man in Christ Jesus. He was called to be a saint and he was always fulfilling his calling, not counting himself to have attained, but ever pressing onward.”1 [Note: S. H. Virgin, Spiritual Sanity, 273.]

III

The Transforming Vision

1. The vision of Christ is to result in resemblance to Christ.—There are peculiar elements and conditions in this vision which account for its marvellous energy. The visible objects of a spiritual world must owe their existence to the spiritual things of which they are the expression. Light in heaven will be caused by the action of the spiritual enlightenment of God’s presence. The great white throne will be the effect of the manifestation to the inward sense of the commanding excellence of Divine righteousness. And so the vision of the glorious body of Christ will be the effect of the action upon the understanding and the spirit of His essential self-hood. Because He will exert His spiritual power upon us, and present Himself to the mind, therefore He will be visible in glorious form. If we may so express it, He will be outwardly seen, because He will be inwardly felt in the fulness of His glory.

Material forces, as we call them, are all spiritual in origin. The causes of things are spiritual. Hidden behind all the wonderful mechanism of the world, and giving it being and activity, is the power of spirit. If we once grasp this doctrine, that spirit—itself necessarily and always invisible—creates and regulates outward things and forces, we shall be able to understand how the Coming of Jesus Christ, which will be pre-eminently a putting forth of spiritual power, will also exercise an influence on the bodily condition of those who are the ready subjects of His influence. St. Paul refers our bodily glorification to the Advent, when, writing to the Philippians, he says, “We wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able to subject all things unto himself.” There is one working which is able to subject all things; and the term St. Paul uses for it, possibly with reference to its spirituality, means literally “in-working.”1 [Note: R. Vaughan.]

2. Clear vision will ensure close likeness.—We know that truth already in its early manifestations. We grow like that which we habitually contemplate, and especially so when we contemplate lovingly and enthusiastically. The affectionate child takes on the characteristics of the parent whom he loves. And the man who contemplates God, who sets Him always before his face, who looks upon Him as the supreme object of love, grows into the likeness of God; and such is the testimony of Jesus Himself, as He addresses the Father in that wonderful prayer in the seventeenth chapter of John: “This is life eternal, that they should know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou didst send, even Jesus Christ.”

A pleasant, sunny landscape has the power of transcribing its own joyous image into the heart of him who intelligently surveys it. The shadow of a cloud, it has been said, does not pass over the face of a field without making some change in it, and in the feelings of the observer. However this may be, it is certain that we cannot live without influencing others, and others influencing us. Human society is a vast network of reciprocal influences. Everybody acts and is acted upon in turn. Every man helps to mould and fashion the character and destiny of every other man within the sphere of his attraction. The thoughts of a man, spread over the pages of a book, have power to work an intellectual assimilation in the mind of him who carefully studies the pages. So must it be spiritually, only in a much higher degree.2 [Note: J. Davies, The Kingdom without Observation, 96.]

Nathaniel Hawthorne has a story of a great stone face carved on the mountain side, which reproduced itself in the spectator. A young man who never wearied of gazing on that face had his life beautified by the vision, and one day as the people looked on his face, they said, “It is the same as on the mountain side.”

Jenny Lind told me, with all her own vivid, emphatic brilliancy of gesture and look, of a scene which had evidently left on her an indelible impression of wonder and glory. She had gone to look on the face of her friend, Mrs. Nassau Senior, after death. The son of her friend had shown her the stairs, and pointed out the door of the room where the body lay, and put the candle in her hand, and left her. She pushed open the door and entered alone; and there, before her, lay the face, fine and clear-cut, encompassed about with a mass of white flowers. On it was peace, and a smile, with the lips parted; but that was not all. I must tell the rest in her own words. “It was not her own look that was in her face. It was the look of another, the face of another, that had passed into hers. It was the shadow of Christ that had come upon her. She had seen Christ. And I put down my candle, and I said,’ Let me see this thing. Let me stop here always. Let me sit and look. Where are my children? Let them come and see. Here is a woman who has seen Christ.’” I can never forget the dramatic intensity of her manner as she told me all this, and how she at last had to drag herself away, as from a vision, and to stumble down the stairs again.1 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 26.]

What we, when face to face we see

The Father of our souls, shall be,

John tells us, doth not yet appear;

Ah, did he tell what we are here!


A mind for thoughts to pass into,

A heart for loves to travel through,

Five senses to detect things near,

Is this the whole that we are here?


Rules baffle instincts—instincts rules,

Wise men are bad—and good are fools,

Facts evil—wishes vain appear,

We cannot go, why are we here?


O may we for assurance sake,

Some arbitrary judgment take,

And wilfully pronounce it clear,

For this or that ’tis we are here?


Or is it right, and will it do,

To pace the sad confusion through,

And say:—It doth not yet appear,

What we shall be, what we are here.


Ah yet, when all is thought and said,

The heart still overrules the head;

Still what we hope we must believe,

And what is given us receive;


Must still believe, for still we hope

That in a world of larger scope,

What here is faithfully begun

Will be completed, not undone.


My child, we still must think, when we

That ampler life together see,

Some true result will yet appear

Of what we are, together, here.1 [Note: Clough, Poems, 63.]

3. The clear vision is possible only to cleansed eyes.—The Jews had looked for Him through many centuries, and when He came they did not know Him. When Christ parts the veil once more, and with the fulness of His being, as St. Paul says, apart from sin, is manifested, shall we know Him? Will He find faith on earth, the faith to receive Him? He will not be like what we to-day imagine. He will be as unlike some of our imaginations as He was when first He came. If you are thinking of Him as He parted from His disciples, He was not even then what you have sometimes thought Him. He was still scarred, and His brow was still riven with Calvary; and this is the last truth of this great word of St. John. We shall never see Him till we are like Him, simply because we cannot. You do not know your friend, you do not know your enemy, except in so far as you are like him. From your life there must go, not only impurity, but all leanings towards it; and in its place there must be that burning repugnance that was in Him when He declared “he hath nothing in me,” when the advent of the Evil One was to Him unspeakable and unutterable pain because He was pure. And if we would learn the way of purity, it is the old way of sorrow and toil—the way He went. “I consecrate myself for their sakes, that they may be consecrated.”

How can a man, without clear vision in his heart first of all, have any clear vision in the head? It is impossible!2 [Note: Carlyle, Past and Present, 83.]

The Civil War did not originate in a conspiracy, but in a perverted state of mind, as other great conflicts have originated in a perverted state of mind. No one attributes the operations of the “Holy Office,” the Inquisition, to a conspiracy; or the seemingly endless wars of religious persecution, to a conspiracy; or the cruelties of the Spaniards in the New World, to a conspiracy. Conspiracy is too insignificant, too weak a word to cover the terrible meaning of such events. We must get nearer human nature than a conspiracy can bring us: we must get close to the undeveloped reason and the undeveloped conscience, and the incapacity to interpret the simple laws in the economy of nature. The blind are not only they who will not, but they who cannot see. And in the history of civilization it is they who cannot see that will not, rather than they who will not see because they cannot.1 [Note: The History of North America, xv. 226.]

All shall see of Him just what they can see—what they are fit to find in that perfect, all-embracing, all-expressing face. Two men are charged with a crime, of which one is innocent, and knows that his innocence will be made plain, while the other is guilty, and has no hope of hiding his guilt. Think you they trace exactly the same expression on the face of their judge? The fears of one fix his eyes upon the firmness, the resolution, the searching sagacity of nostril and mouth and eye; and he trembles. The confidence of the other points him to the just, honourable, patient mien which gives him promise of a complete investigation; and he exults. Both watch the same face at the same moment, but what they find there is not the same.2 [Note: G. A. Chadwick, Pilate’s Gift, 187.]

Life’s journey almost past,

Tottering I stand at last

Close to the door;

Weary the way hath been,

And often sad through sin,

Now all is o’er.


The friends I walk’d beside

At noon and evening tide

Went long ago,

And evening’s travel, grown

Ever more chill and lone,

Seem’d to pass slow.


Yet was it night, not day,

Thus slowly waned away—

Now dawn is nigh;

The daystar’s warning bright

Tells me the shades of night

All Boon will fly.


Beyond that welcome door

I know—and oh, for more

Why should I care?

I shall my Saviour see

As now He seeth me;

Jesus is there!

What We Are and What We Shall Be

Literature

Ainger (A.), Sermons in the Temple Church, 13.

Ball (C. J.), Testimonies to Christ, 118.

Binney (T.), Sermons in King’s Weigh-House Chapel, 2nd Ser., 316.

Brooks (P.), The Law of Growth, 346.

Burrell (D. J.), The Golden Passional, 243.

Campbell (R. J.), The Keys of the Kingdom, 21.

Chadwick (G. A.), Pilate’s Gift, 183.

Davies (J.), The Kingdom without Observation, 84.

Drummond (R. J.), Faith’s Certainties, 149.

Eyton (R.), The True Life, 207.

Fraser (J.), University Sermons, 167.

Harris (S. S.), The Dignity of Man, 222.

Haslam (W.), The Threefold Gift of God, i. 66.

Holland (W. L.), The Beauty of Holiness, 68.

Ker (J.), Sermons, i. 365.

Lewis (A.), Sermons Preached in England, 162.

Lewis (F. W.), The Work of Christ, 134.

Mackenzie (R.), The Loom of Providence, 146.

Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, ii. 255.

Matheson (G.), Leaves for Quiet Hours, 286.

Murray (A.), Like Christ, 241.

Nicoll (W. R.), Ten-Minute Sermons, 313.

Punshon (W. M.), Sermons, i. 66.

Pusey (E. B.), Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, 479.

Robertson (F. W.), The Human Race, 43.

Selby (T. G.), The Lesson of a Dilemma, 243.

Thew (J.), Broken Ideals, 186, 187.

Vincent (M. R.), The Covenant of Peace, 174.

Virgin (S. H.), Spiritual Sanity, 272.

Webster (F. S.), The Beauties of the Saviour, 143.

Wright (D.), The Power of an Endless Life, 217.


Verse 3

The Power of the Christian Hope

And every one that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.—1 John 3:3.

1. St. John has been urging upon his poor, obscure brethren the fact that now, even in this life, with its infirmities, and weaknesses, and limitations, and sins, men are the children of God; that the very fact that God calls us children reveals the greatness of His love for us; that sonship here is a promise of glory hereafter; that that hereafter is to be lived with Christ, and in a state of likeness to Christ; that though we cannot form a definite conception of the greatness, and glory, and dignity of sonship in the Father’s house, yet we may know that as He—the Christ—is, so shall we be:

Soul and body

Shall His glorious image bear.

This hope is a light that burns above the darkness of this world’s troubled sea, and to it they may look as to the beacon light which directs them home. Beyond the sorrows, and persecutions, and wearinesses of life, they may look for their perfect consummation and bliss, of both body and soul, in the heavenly kingdom, in the Father’s House, towards which they are all hastening. And then from the unimaginable splendours of this Beatific Vision he passes to the plainest practical talk:—If you entertain this hope, you must remember that there are conditions connected with it; to be Jesus Christ’s there, you must be Jesus Christ’s here; to attain to the fulness of His likeness in heaven, you must have here and now the elements of His character; sonship in heaven means sonship on earth; seeing God there means purity here. “Every man that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.”

2. So when in this chapter St. John has for an instant opened for us the door leading into the future home of the redeemed, he shuts it again, brings us back to earth once more, and says to us, as stated in the text, that the matter immediately before us is not what we are going to be there, but what we are going to be and do here, and that the only legitimate effect of the glimpse he has just given us into the celestial world will be to steady and encourage the steps that are to be taken by us in this world. “And every man that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” That preserves the continuity between the life there and the life here, but the use to which he puts that continuity is to enhance our interest in this world rather than to diminish that interest.

This is the only time in John’s Epistle that he speaks about hope. The good man, living so near Christ, finds that the present, with its “abiding in him,” is enough for his heart. And though he was the Seer of the Apocalypse, he has scarcely a word to say about the future in this letter of his; and when he does, it is for a simple and intensely practical purpose, in order that he may enforce on us the teaching of labouring earnestly in purifying ourselves.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

I

The Character of Christian Hope

1. The Christian has a hope peculiar to himself.—It is the hope of being like Jesus Christ. “We shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.” Now some would not put it in that way: they would say that their hope as Christians is to tread the golden streets, pass within the pearly gates, listen to the harpers harping with their harps, and, standing upon the sea of glass, be for ever free from toil and pain. But those are only the lower joys of heaven, except so far as they indicate spiritual bliss. The real truth, the truth that is contained in these metaphors and figures, and underlies them all, is that heaven is being like our Lord. While it will consist in our sharing in the Redeemer’s power, the Redeemer’s joy and the Redeemer’s honour, yet, it will consist mainly in our being spiritually and morally like Him—being purified as He is pure. And if we may become like Jesus Christ as to His character—pure and perfect—how can any other joy be denied us? If we shall have that, surely we shall have everything. This, then, is our hope—that we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.

One of the greatest fallacies under which men live is hoping for heaven when they themselves are out of sympathy with heaven. Heaven is not infrequently regarded as a place to which admission is gained by some lenient act of Divine amnesty, or by some special pleading of a mediator—human or Divine—or by some clever piece of juggling at the last moment. Instead of this the Bible tells us—if it tells us anything at all about that other life—that heaven is not a place into which we are admitted, but a life into which we must grow. Heaven is not location, or circumstantial environment: Heaven is character. What we are here determines whether we shall have heaven or hell in the life to come.

Life, like a dome of many coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity.1 [Note: W. J. Hocking.]

2. This hope goes beyond the present life.—It is far above man: it is set on God. In climbing towards it, he must leave all meaner things behind and beneath him. The hope of the Christian is the one worthy, enduring hope that is capable of lifting man above the earth and leading him to heaven. For all earthly and human ideals are too near the man to last him more than a little while. No sooner does he propose one such to himself, and begin to mount towards it, than it begins to lose its excellence as he draws nigh to it, and soon it has no power to hold his affections. There is no imaginable state that he cannot so disenchant except heaven, and no model that he cannot unidealize except the Son of God. Therefore every mere earthly hope is unworthy to rule a man and, if he have no higher, will at last degrade him; because man is greater than any earthly honour he can aspire to, and greater than the world that he lives in, and greater than all its achievements and glories—yes, greater than anything except God. Sic itur ad astra: This is the way to the stars. And Jesus, our elder brother, has gone before, and opened the way for aspiring man to follow. Behold they go to Him, out of every nation and every land, the leal, the loving, the true-hearted, even those who believe on His name. One by one they shake off all meaner desires, and lay all meaner purposes down, and as they climb towards Him along the various paths of suffering and of duty, their hearts are filled with a common hope—to be like Him, and see Him as He is.

In a letter to Bishop King, Dr. Bright wrote: “Blessed are they that hope,” is not formally among the Beatitudes; but it is, as you have made us feel, a summary of very much of the New Testament teaching.1 [Note: Edward King, Bishop of Lincoln, 78.]

3. This hope, being unworldly, does not appeal to mercenary instincts.—It does not centre itself on surroundings like Mohammed’s Paradise or the Elysian fields. Lower motives inevitably appeal more strongly to self-interest. People are often struck by seeing the indifference of Mohammedans in the face of death; soldiers have often testified how bravely they will go to death, and have argued that their religion must be more of a reality to them than ours. No doubt the lower, more mercenary conceptions of reward hereafter would make men more careless of their lives than the Christian one of being with Christ. The certainty that he was to pass into a sensual paradise would cause a sensual man, perhaps, even to put an end to himself. But one has yet to learn that there is really anything great in absolute indifference to death. Whatever the relative value of this life and the next, this is certain, that this life has a value, that in it man has a work to do, that it is wrong to try to shorten it, and that, therefore, indifference to its sudden close is no real sign of greatness. That is one thing; another is that, even granting that lower conceptions do produce greater indifference and consequent carelessness in the face of death than the higher ones, at any rate with the mass of mankind, yet we can never say, with the memory of Gordon and Havelock and a host of others before us, that the Christian conception, when realized, does not help men to die quite as bravely as any other conception, when there is any real and adequate reason.

The hope of reward is a powerful agent, in fact the only effective one. Our Lord said so when He was among men. But neither Jesus nor the beloved disciple would have held out heaven as the object of men’s desire without first revealing heaven to them. Jesus brought heaven down to men, in His own person. He said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He said, “I and the Father are one,” and “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” He showed to them in His daily companionship that every lovely deed and word He enforced was but an expression of His own nature. He told them He should leave them and go to the Father. He said that in that Father’s house were many mansions; that He should go to prepare a place for them, and that where He was there they should be. Was there any fear, when He had taught these lessons, and inspired this spirit, that the disciples, who looked up to Him with adoring love, would think of heaven as a place of selfish luxury? According to their view of Him would be their view of heaven.1 [Note: A. Ainger, Sermons Preached in the Temple Church, 16.]

I do not love thee, Lord, my part and lot,

For that bright heaven thou hast promised me;

I am not moved by fear because I see

A yawning hell for those who love thee not;

’Tis thou thyself dost move me; salt and hot

The tears flow down my cheeks to think on thee

Nailed to the cross and mocked, that men might be

Freed by thy death on that accursed spot.

Thy love hath moved me; and I see it clear

That, even robbed of heaven, I should love;

And freed of hell and torment, I should fear.

For, giving nothing, thou wert still as dear,

And had I naught to hope one day above,

No less to thee, O Lord, my soul must move.2 [Note: Roy Temple House, in S.S. Times, Aug. 17, 1912.]

4. If the future is not a hope it will be a fear.—If we resolve to forego the hope, we shall still be haunted by the fear that in that sleep of death there will come dreams, and that these dreams may be of darkness rather than of light. The love of God and of His righteousness is the key to the appreciation of heaven. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived it, because it is spiritually discerned. We may speculate fancifully on its nature; we may cultivate curiosity till we bring ourselves, when on the brink of death, to say with the famous Frenchman, “Now for the great secret”; but we have not been raised by such speculations any nearer to the height to which God is ever calling us. For He is calling us to hope, and to hope for Him.

It would not, perhaps, be true to say that fearlessness is always the product of hope; it is true to say that, where hope is, fear cannot be. Hope, in the deepest, truest sense of the word, “casteth out fear, because fear hath torment.” Bunyan, in his great classic, makes this clear to us, in his delineation of the man whom he names Hopeful. In the dungeon of Giant Despair, with his companion, Christian, it is the younger pilgrim who consoles and enheartens the older. And when the two enter together the last river, and Christian cries out, “I sink in deep waters; the billows go over my head,” Hopeful calmly replies, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”1 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 126.]

II

The Operation of Christian Hope

1. The Christian hope has a purifying power.—There are very few religions which have not made purifying of some kind a part of their duty. The very savage, when he enters (as he fancies) the presence of his God, will wash and adorn himself that he may be fit, poor creature, for meeting the paltry God which he has invented out of his own brain; and he is right as far as he goes. The Englishman, when he dresses himself in his best to go to church, obeys the same reasonable instinct. Whatsoever we respect and admire we shall also try to copy, if it be only for a time. If we are going into the presence of a wiser man than ourselves, we shall surely recollect and summon up what little wisdom or knowledge we may have; if into the presence of a holier person, we shall try to call up in ourselves those better and more serious thoughts which we so often forget, that we may be, even for a few minutes, fit for that good company. And if we go into the presence of a purer person than ourselves, we shall surely (unless we be base and brutal) call up our purest and noblest thoughts, and try to purify ourselves, even as they are pure. It is true what poets have said again and again, that there are women whose mere presence, whose mere look, drives all bad thoughts away—women before whom men dare no more speak, or act, or even think, basely, than they would dare before the angels of God.

It has been truly said that children cannot be brought up among beautiful pictures, even among any beautiful sights and sounds, without the very expression of their faces becoming more beautiful, purer, gentler, nobler; so that in them are fulfilled the words of the great and holy Poet concerning the maiden brought up according to God, and the laws of God—

And she shall lean her ear

In many a secret place

Where rivulets dance their wayward round,

And beauty born of murmuring sound

Shall pass into her face.

But if mere human beings can have this “personal influence,” as it is called, over each others’ characters, if even inanimate things, if they be beautiful, can have it—what must be the personal influence of our Lord Jesus Christ?1 [Note: C. Kingsley, All Saints’ Day, 24.]

From Bethel “Jacob went on his journey” (Genesis 29:1). He “lifted up his feet,” as the livelier Hebrew has it. He went forward with a new buoyancy in his step and a higher courage in his heart. He was animated by the hope which always thrills the soul when it is fresh from real communion with God. There are spiritual experiences after which “we become physically nimble and lightsome; we tread on air; life is no longer irksome, and we think it will never be so.” It is a rapture to face the unknown future, if God has promised to be with us and guide us. As the Hebrew prophet says: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.”2 [Note: J. Strachan, Hebrew Ideals, ii. 49.]

2. This hope will materially weaken our hold on this world.—What is wealth, when we have illimitable riches laid up in heaven? What are pleasures, when we have before us endless joys—the most pure and intelligent that the wisdom and resources of God can create? What are earthly attachments, when compared with the society of saints and angels, and, above all, the Lord Himself, which awaits the child of God? What is knowledge—even the profoundest that earth’s sages can fathom—compared with that ocean of all that is knowable in the near future? While it is certainly a gain to have a cupful of knowledge instead of a thimbleful, yet, in either case, it is a mere nothing in comparison with knowing fully, even as we have been known fully.

Clearly, then, just in proportion to our having such bright hopes lighting up the gloomy recesses of our earthly lives shall we be able to sit loosely to the things of only passing interest, and set our affections on heavenly things. We shall use earth’s mammon only as a handmaid to add lustre to the “everlasting habitations.”

We cling too much to this world’s affairs. Many of us are like the little boy of whom Mr. McNeill tells, who was one day playing with a vase, and who put his hand into it and could not withdraw it. The father failed to free his boy’s hand, and was talking of breaking the vase. But he suggested another trial first. He told his boy to open his hand and hold his fingers straight out and then to pull his hand away. To his astonishment the little fellow said that he could not put his fingers out as his father had shown him, for if he did he would have to drop his penny. He had been holding on to a penny all the time.1 [Note: J. Dinwoodie.]

3. This hope will supply courage and patience.—There is nothing that makes a man so downhearted in his work of self-improvement as the constant and bitter experience that it seems to be all of no use; that he is making so little progress; that with immense pains, like a snail creeping up a wall, he gets up, perhaps an inch or two, and then all at once he drops down, and farther down than he was before he started. Slowly we manage some little, patient self-improvement; gradually, inch by inch and bit by bit, we may be growing better, and then there comes some gust and outburst of temptation; and the whole painfully reclaimed soil gets covered up by an avalanche of mud and stones, which we have to remove slowly, barrow-load by barrow-load. And then we feel that it is all of no use to strive, and we let circumstances shape us, and give up all thoughts of reformation. To such moods, then, there comes, like an angel from Heaven, that holy, blessed message, “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Every inch that we make now will tell then, and it is not all of no use. Set your heart to the work, it is a work that will be blessed and will prosper.

I think this was the first year that I took a leading part in opposing the Adjournment for the Derby (which Tom Hughes had previously engineered) and was beaten by about three to one. This was one of the many “Forlorn Hopes” which I have lived to see successful—for I think the Derby adjournment is now virtually killed. In those days everyone laughed at the idea of stopping the scandal. Surely the words of Charles Greville (himself a Turfite) in his Journal indicate the true nature of racing—“Then the degrading nature of the occupation; mixing with the lowest of mankind and absorbed in the business for the sole purpose of getting money, the consciousness of a sort of degradation of intellect, the conviction of the deteriorating effect upon both the feelings and the understanding—all these things torment me, and often turn my pleasure to pain.” How often in looking back on these forlorn hopes do I think of the lines—

Though beaten back in many a fray,

Yet freshening strength we borrow:

And where the vanguard halts to-day

The rear shall camp to-morrow.1 [Note: Sir Wilfrid Lawson, 107.]

Two serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon the British forces in South Africa. Cronje, lurking behind his trenches and his barbed wire entanglements, barred Methuen’s road to Kimberley, while in the northern part of Cape Colony Gatacre’s wearied troops had been defeated and driven by a force which consisted largely of British subjects. But the public at home steeled their hearts and fixed their eyes steadily upon Natal. There was their senior General, and there the main body of their troops. As brigade after brigade and battery after battery touched at Cape Town, and were sent on instantly to Durban, it was evident that it was in this quarter that the supreme effort was to be made, and that there the light might at last break. In club, and dining-room, and railway car—wherever men met and talked—the same words might be heard: “Wait until Buller moves.” The hopes of a great empire lay in the phrase.2 [Note: A. Conan Doyle, The Great Boer War, 175.]

It is neither blood nor rain that has made England, but hope—the thing all those dead men have desired. France was not France because she was made to be by the skulls of the Celts or by the sun of Gaul. France was France because she chose.3 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, George Bernard Shaw.]

Westcott gave us hope, in an age which needed, above all things, to be saved from hopelessness. “We can keep hope fresh,” so he cried to us of the Christian Social Union.

Hope, the paramount duty which Heaven lays,

For its own honour, on man’s suffering heart.

This is the debt that we owe to him—to cling to the high hopes with which he was inspired—even though we “see not our token, and there is no prophet more; no, not one among us who under-standeth any more.”1 [Note: H. Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 138.]

We are of those who tremble at Thy word;

Who faltering walk in darkness toward our close

Of mortal life, by terrors curbed and spurred:

We are of those.


We journey to that land which no man knows

Who any more can make his voice be heard

Above the clamour of our wants and woes.


Not ours the hearts Thy loftiest love hath stirred,

Not such as we Thy lily and Thy rose:—

Yet, Hope of those who hope with hope deferred,

We are of those.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poems, 196.]

III

The Pattern of Purity

1. Christ is the Pattern—“as he is pure.”—He exhibits perfection in the inner and outer life. The inner life consists in oneness with Christ, the outer life in intercourse with our fellow-men. The two are well combined in those words of St. Peter: “What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?” This holiness of character has its root in its close companionship with Christ, and is exhibited in all manner of Christian conversation. Look at the Pattern. His holiness was pre-eminently practical. Look at His submission to His mother when He was “subject unto her,” His care for her in His dying hour, His compassion for the multitude, His love for His chosen flock, His faithfulness to those whom He loved, His meekness and gentleness, His sinless purity, His forgiveness of wrong, His delight in the Father’s will, His absolute submission to the Father’s purpose, His marvellous self-sacrifice, giving Himself “a ransom for many.”

In the Standard Office of the British Government there is a bronze bar, a yard long, the unit of measurement throughout the British Empire. Everything is measured by reference to that bit of metal. It is the final court of appeal in the matter of measurement. The interesting thing about it is that it is reputed to be the same length as the arm of the king in whose reign it was made. So that we really measure by reference to a royal arm. It is in the realm of heart and soul as in the realm of the market-place: our unit of measurement is something about a King—not the sweep of His arm, but the heart and the life of Him.

In white all the colours are blended. A perfectly white substance combines all the colours of the rainbow merged in true proportion; but green or indigo, or red are only the reflections of a part of the solar rays. So John, Peter, Paul—these are parts of the light of heaven; these are differing colours, and there is a beauty in each one of them. But if you want to get the whole you must get to Christ the perfect Lord, for all the light is in Him. In Him is not the red or the blue, but in Him is light, the true light, the whole of it. You are sure to get a lop-sided character if any man shall be the copy after which you write. If we copy Christ we shall attain a perfect manhood through the power of His Spirit.1 [Note: C. H. Spurgeon, Grace Triumphant, 215.]

2. The Pattern is an everlasting challenge to us.—The promise of likeness to God does not mean perfect freedom from sin now, far from it; but it does mean progressive growth, gradual conquest, ever, in some small way, coming to know God and His purposes better, and so growing, even if it be in ways almost undiscernible, to a likeness of something in Him. Every man that hath this hope in Christ, every one, that is, who realizes the blessing of His Baptism, the dignity of his being God’s child, this manner of love whereby he, all unworthy, is called the son of God, and sees that this is but the beginning; that God means to lead him onwards to the full knowledge of Himself, till, at last, he is counted worthy to see His face—every man to whom these thoughts and hopes are real will long to use every means given of God for his cleansing, will suffer no lower ideal to overshadow and obscure his hope.

In the beautiful legends which tell us of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, one knight is described as the bright and consummate flower of chivalry, the brave and spotless Sir Galahad—whose good blade carved the casques of men, whose tough lance thrusted sure, whose strength was as the strength of ten, because his heart was pure. It was no fond tale, no idle fancy; for many Sir Galahads have lived since Christ came to show men how to be great; and such are the men who have done all the fairest and gentlest deeds of human history. And sordid and commonplace as the world seems to have grown, the only real leaders of men are the men who, like Sir Galahad, are high-minded and pure-hearted. The time was when such rode forth in armour to resist the spoilers, and keep the far frontiers of Christendom against the heathen invader. Now, however, they do the less conspicuous but not less glorious part. In every Christian community there are pure-hearted Christian men who are the real champions of right, the warders of all that men cherish and hold dear—men who are kept stainless and pure by the high hope of their Christian calling; men whose high-mindedness gives tone to our society, who are the real defenders of public safety and domestic peace. These are the true defenders of our country, the unconscious champions of its homes—men to whose star-eyed vision the Christian’s hope has risen, and whom by God’s grace it has purified and is keeping pure.1 [Note: S. S. Harris, The Dignity of Man, 229.]

3. How then is our purification to be effected?—The answer is, and must be, that it is the work of the Spirit. But as, on the one hand, there would be nothing so vain as to try to do the Spirit’s work for ourselves, so, on the other hand, there is nothing so useless as to expect the Spirit to do our work. There is a purification which God alone can effect for us. There is another purification which God cannot and will not do. Sin is forgiven, sinfulness is removed, grace is bestowed by God. None of these things can be obtained by man. But grace must be used by man like all other gifts of God. He must learn to be obedient, he must learn to avoid sin, he must learn to be active in goodness, by the use of grace; not by merely standing still as if he were asleep or dead. Whatever may be the source of his activity, he must, so far as he knows, choose, determine, plan, persevere in the way of holiness, as much as in the way of learning, in the way of working, counselling, or pursuing any other energy which God has set before men. And it is plain that unless it were so we should not enjoy the human freedom, the human faculties in that thing which most belongs to humanity—the knowledge and love of God.

See how he does not take away freewill in that he saith, “purify himself.” Who purifieth us but God? Yea; but God doth not purify thee if thou be unwilling. Therefore, in that thou joinest thy will to God, in that thou purifiest thyself, thou purifiest thyself not by thyself, but by Him who cometh to inhabit thee.1 [Note: Augustine.]

To have communion with Jesus Christ is like bringing an atmosphere round about us in which all evil will die. If you take a fish out of water and bring it up into the upper air, it writhes and gasps, and is dead presently; and our evil tendencies and sins, drawn up out of the muddy depths in which they live, and brought up into that pure atmosphere of communion with Jesus Christ, are sure to shrivel and to die, and to disappear. We kill all evil by fellowship with the Master. His presence in our lives, by our communion with Him, is like the watchfire that the traveller lights at night—it keeps all the wild beasts of prey away from the fold.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]

I saw a smith the other day cleaning his grimy workshop. Through one high and narrow window streamed a golden ray of sunshine, and where the beam fell the broom swept. But under benches and dark corners one caught a suggestion of cobwebs and long-gathered dust on them. The smith took a piece of burnished tin, and catching on its face the ray of sunshine, he flashed it into the hiding-places of ancient dirt and disorder, and straightway followed the cleansing. It is a homely parable. Every man with “this hope set on him purifieth himself”; will send its flashlight into the dark places of the heart where hidden foulness still lurks, and by its revealing straightway set about self-cleansing. The vision splendid is greatly practical. You can do so many things by it. You can harness a stubborn temper with it, bridle an ill tongue, cauterize with the fire of it a hidden plague spot, yoke it to a sluggard self so slow to seek another’s good at any cost of comfort. “Every man that hath this hope set on him purifieth himself.”3 [Note: T. Yates.]

Then life is—to wake, not sleep,

Rise and not rest, but press

From earth’s level, where blindly creep

Things perfected, more or less,

To the heaven’s height, far and steep,


Where, amid what strifes and storms

May wait the adventurous quest,

Power is Love—transports, transforms

Who aspired from worst to best,

Sought the soul’s world, spurned the worms!


I have faith such end shall be:

From the first, Power was—I knew.

Life has made clear to me

That, strive but for closer view,

Love were as plain to see.


When see? When there dawns a day,

If not on the homely earth,

Then yonder, worlds away,

Where the strange and new have birth,

And Power comes full in play.1 [Note: Browning.]

The Power of the Christian Hope

Literature

Ainger (A.), Sermons in the Temple Church, 13.

Bushnell (H.), The New Life, 176.

Campbell (R. J.), A Faith for To-day, 107.

Cooper (T. J.), Love’s Unveiling, 144.

Dale (R. W.), Christian Doctrine, 198.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 162.

Davies (J.), The Kingdom without Observation, 84.

Eadie (J.), The Divine Love, 104.

Eyton (R.), The True Life, 207.

Farrar (F. W.), Truths to Live By, 61, 197.

Glazebrook (M. G.), The End of the Law, 71.

Harris (S. S.), The Dignity of Man, 222.

Hoare (E.), Great Principles of Divine Truth, 256.

Holland (W. L.), The Beauty of Holiness, 68.

Hopkins (E. H.), The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, 1.

McGarvey (J. W.), Sermons (1894), 16.

Maclagan (P. J.), The Gospel View of Things, 57, 130

Maclaren (A.), A Year’s Ministry, i. 3.

Murray (A.), Like Christ, 241.

Parkhurst (C. H.), A Little Lower than the Angels, 91.

Punshon (W. M.), Sermons, i. 66.

Pusey (E. B.), Parochial and Cathedral Sermons, 479.

Robertson (F. W.), The Human Race, 43.

Smellie (A.), In the Secret Place, 65.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xliii. (1897) 133.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Grace Triumphant, 199.

Talbot (E. S.), Some Titles and Aspects of the Eucharist, 19.

Vincent (M. R.), The Covenant of Peace, 174.

Westcott (B. F.), Village Sermons, 82.


Verses 4-10

(3) THE CONSEQUENCE OF THE DIVINE BIRTH ON HUMAN CONDUCT (1 John 3:4-10).—This paragraph is an expansion of the thought of 1 John 2:3, which was the practical conclusion of the meditation on the divine love as seen in the new birth. In thinking of the nature of righteousness, of the new birth, and of purity, the Apostle is led to dwell on their opposite, lawlessness, the synonym and essence of sin. His object being to bring purity and righteousness into relief, and to determine who are the children of God and who of the devil, he pursues the contrast by a series of antitheses, introducing, after his manner, reflections suggested by particular stages of the thought.

1st Contrast: Purity, and the act of sin regarded as lawlessness (abstract).

Reflection: Christ manifested to take away our sins.

2nd Contrast: Abiding in Christ, we sin not; sinning, we have neither seen nor known (practical).

3rd Contrast (in the form of a warning): The righteous are like God; sinners are of the devil (hortatory).

Reflection: Christ manifested to destroy the works of the devil.

4th Contrast: The sons of the devil sin; the sons of God keep the germ from Him, and sin not (explanatory).

5th Contrast: The criterion between the two sonships is doing righteousness and (a new thought in this passage) loving the brother (the test).

(4) Transgresseth also the law.—Rather, doeth lawlessness.

The transgression of the law.—Or, lawlessness. He is not thinking of the law of Moses, but defining and analysing the nature of sin in general: it is acting from caprice instead of on principle, disobeying the conscience, neglecting the will of God, rebelling against His commandments.

(5) And ye know . . .—The Incarnation is here mentioned with the purpose of strengthening the appeal to purity. The very object of Christ’s coming was to take away our sins by atonement, and their power in us by reformation. He is Himself sinless. Those who really rest firm in Him cannot be habitual sinners, nor, on the other hand, can habitual sinners be really in Him.

To take away our sins.—See John 1:29. For the use of the word “take away,” compare John 11:48; John 15:2; John 17:15; John 19:31; John 19:38. The idea of sacrificial substitution was uppermost in 1 John 2:2. Here it is rather that of sanctification; but the other is not excluded. The two are always connected in St. John’s mind. (Comp. 1 John 1:7; 1 John 4:9-11.) The purpose of Christ’s coming was not so much to teach a new doctrine as to produce a new life; the first was the means to the second.

And in him is no sin.—The fact that Christ is perfectly sinless is dwelt on because He is the vital element of the Christian’s being, and if present in him must produce a result like Himself.

(6) Abideth in him.—See 1 John 2:6; 1 John 2:24, and John 15:4. The whole nature must consciously repose in Christ, breathe His spiritual atmosphere, draw all nourishment from Him, have no principle of thought or action apart from Him. This intimate union is regarded as the direct consequence of Christ’s manifestation, and of His sinless character as manifested.

Sinneth not.—See Romans 7:17. Although the Christian does not always do what is best, he does not willingly commit sin; his real self is on the side of God’s law.

Whosoever sinneth.—Adopts the lawless disposition deliberately. In the moment of conscious wilful sin, any former partial sight or knowledge he may have had of Christ becomes a thing of the past, as if it were not, and proves its own inadequacy. Ignatius says, “None who professeth faith sinneth, and none who hath love hateth. They who profess themselves Christians will be manifest by what they do.” (Comp. 1 John 2:19, and Matthew 7:23.) A real saving sight of Christ is when our mind becomes conscious of the convincing truth, beauty, perfection, love, and power of His existence. The corresponding knowledge is when that sight has become experience, the soul having learnt the effect of His strengthening, purifying grace; having proved the happiness of spiritual intercourse with Him; and having meditated continually on the records of the sayings and doings of His earthly manifestation. There may be here a reference to the Gnostics, who said that their “knowledge” was so great that they had no need to work righteousness: grace would be enough, without works.

(7, 8) By the solemn appeal, “My little children,” the practical contrast of 1 John 2:7 is introduced in the form of a warning in 1 John 2:7-8. The words “is of the devil,” in the second branch of the antithesis, show that the words “is righteous, even as he is righteous,” are meant to claim for the true Christian a likeness of nature to Christ. Although there is no allusion to it here, the teaching of the Epistle to the Romans shows that the eternal righteousness of Christ may be an object of faith, even though His name and earthly manifestation be unknown.

(8) Of the devil.—See on John 8:44. Not that the devil has created the sinner, but that the sinner has allowed him to generate his evil nature, until gradually the whole nature may have become evil, and therefore generated by the devil, to the exclusion of any elements of goodness. By making the devil the antithesis to Christ, St. John insists as strongly as it would be possible for him to insist on the moral importance of remembering the existence and kingdom of an allowed power of evil. The work of the Messiah cannot be fully understood without acknowledging this fact of human consciousness.

For the devil sinneth from the beginning.—“For” states the reason why sinners are of the devil. By “from the beginning,” therefore, we understand, not the date of the devil’s existence, or of the creation of the earth and solar system, or of human history, or of the devil’s fall, but the beginning of human sin. As soon as human sin began, then the devil was at work and claiming his parentage.

The Son of God was manifested.—The devil is not honoured by being placed over against the whole Almighty Deity, but is regarded as the special antagonist of the Son. (Compare 1 John 2:5.) In taking away our sins Christ would be destroying the works of the devil, which are every possible variety of sin. The consequences of sin—affliction, death, condemnation—are rather the wholesome discipline of God.

1 John 2:9 repeats, in a more perfect form of contrast to 1 John 2:8, the thought of 1 John 2:7. (Comp. 1 John 2:29; 1 John 3:6.) We have seen that the birth of the new nature is not complete till we enter into our rest; so also the freedom from sin is progressive. His seed is the Holy Spirit: that influence proceeding from God, imbued with divine vitality, regenerating, renewing, refreshing, causing the nature of holiness to spring, to grow, to bloom, to bear fruit. The result is the same whether the metaphor is regarded as animal or vegetable. The Christian does not say, “I have the seed of God within me, so I need not mind if I am betrayed into sin.” That would alone be enough to prove that the seed of God is not there. If he is betrayed into sin, he trembles lest the seed of God should not be there. He struggles to free his permanent will from all participation in what was wrong. He claims the help of the Spirit in his struggle; and his sincerity shows that it was a genuine bond fide betrayal, not a pre-conceived moral choice. “Sinneth not,” therefore, looks rather to the Christian’s course as a whole. “He cannot sin,” means that if he is really born of God it is an impossibility for him deliberately to choose evil. If he deliberately chooses evil he is not born of God. “A child of God in this conflict receives indeed wounds daily, but never throws away his arms or makes peace with his deadly foe” (Luther).

1 John 2:10 sums up the matter in a terse distinction: all mankind are either children of God or children of the devil—they who try to do good, and they who deliberately and consciously choose evil. It is not even for an Apostle to judge which man belongs to which class; at any rate, the true Christian can never be a wilful rebel. And here, as the importance of brotherly love is so constantly before his mind, St. John allows the note which he struck in 1 John 2:9 to enter again into the melody of his thoughts. Brotherly love, the most prominent part of Christian righteousness, may well be mentioned in the contrast between sin and holiness, as it is the most comprehensive of all virtues.


Verses 11-18

(4) BROTHERLY LOVE THE NECESSARY FLOWER OF THE DIVINE LOVE IN THE DIVINE BIRTH (1 John 3:11-18).—In 1 John 2:10 St. John showed the necessary connection between righteousness and love; there is no contradiction between the two: the one is necessary to the other. Justice will become sternness without love; love will be weakness without justice. The two thoughts are introduced and connected in both halves of the Epistles. (See 1 John 2:3-11.) Here the duty of love is still more strongly insisted on, as the general subject is the love of God, as in the first half of the Epistle it was the light of God. We have (a) the command or message of Christ; then (b) the contrast of Cain; then (c) the similar conduct of the world (a thought which had occurred before, in 1 John 2:1); then (d) the comfort of the connection between love and life, as contrasted with hatred and death; then (e) the identification of the hater with the murderer, and the impossibility of associating the idea of eternal life with the destroyer of temporal life; then (f) the example of God’s love in the death of the Son, urging us even to the same extremity of self-sacrifice; then, (g) as a minor premise, the thought thrust home, for a practical conclusion, that the smaller self-sacrifice of daily assistance to others is an, essential to the Christian life.

(4 a.) (11) For states the reason why brotherly love was added to righteousness at the end of the last paragraph: because it was the earliest and most prominent feature of Christianity presented to them.

Love one another.—The injunction is perfectly general, without the restrictions of society; wherever Christian love is due, there it must immediately be paid. (Comp. 1 Peter 1:22.)

(4 b.) (12) Not as Cain, who was of that . . .—Rather, Not as Cain was of that . . .; an abrupt conversational form. (Comp. John 6:58.) Cain is introduced as the prototype of envy, jealousy, and the inward hatred which the evil feel at the good.

(4 c.) (13) The conduct of the world to Christians is of a piece with this invariable characteristic of those who are in darkness, exemplified in Cain. (Comp. John 15:18-19; John 17:14; 2 Timothy 3:12.)

Marvel not is equivalent to “Be not dismayed; be of good courage.”

(4 d.) (14) This is a characteristic instance of St. John’s logic. From the terseness and pregnancy of his style, he does not give all the steps of an argument, but frequently turns it upside down, in order more speedily to bring out a forcible spiritual truth. But for this he would have written, “We love the brethren, because we have passed from death unto life; but he that abideth in death loveth not.” But wishing to put these ideas in the form of a direct encouragement, in face of a hating world, he puts the reason as the conclusion, and the conclusion as the reason. This unexpected turn rivets the attention far more than a rigid deduction. Another ground of assurance has been stated in 1 John 2:2 : keeping the behests of Christ, of which (as we have seen) love is the most prominent. “The brothers” means all the members of the human family: the love of Christ which, in 1 John 2:16, we are bidden to imitate, was for the whole world of sinners. (Comp. Matthew 5:44; 1 Corinthians 4:12.)

Passed from death unto life.—This dates from the beginning of the new birth, the dawn of eternal life in the converted heart. And just as the perfect Christian love embraces all other Christian virtues, so not only does actual hatred, but the absence of love, indicate absolute spiritual deadness.

(4 e.) (15) Regarding the absence of love as of one class with the presence of hatred, St. John here puts more prominently forward the active member of the class than the quiescent. The statement is intended as an illustration of the fact that where no love is there can neither be eternal life. The full argument would be “Where love is not, there is hatred; where hatred is, there is murder; where murder is, there can be no eternal life.” (Comp. Matthew 5:21-26.)

(4 f.) (16) Hereby perceive we the love of God.—Rather, Hereby know we the true love; meaning, of course, that perfection of love which is God Himself. Christ, the Word made flesh, is regarded as identical with this love, so only the pronoun is used. The highest proof of love is the sacrifice of that which is most precious: nothing could be more precious than the life of the Word made flesh. (Comp. John 10:11; John 10:15; John 10:17-18; John 13:37-38; John 15:13; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 5:2; Ephesians 5:25.)

For us.—Rather, on our behalf. (See Romans 5:8.)

And we ought.—The reason of this consequence is that we are to be like Christ in everything; as our being is orbed in His, so whatever was His spirit will be ours: even His unparallelled act of self-sacrifice must be reproduced in us, at however great a distance. For the good of our fellows we must be even ready to die. (Comp. John 13:34; John 15:12-13; Romans 9:3; Romans 16:3-4.)

(4 g.) But implies a progress from the greater duty to the less; if the less is neglected, far more completely is the command disobeyed.

Good.—Rather, sustenance, or “necessaries of life.”

World is not here used in a bad sense, but merely of such elements of existence as are not spiritual.

The word “see” is strong, and implies calm and attentive contemplation.

The word translated “bowels of compassion” is used in the LXX. (Proverbs 12:10) for “tender mercies.” It is used in the New Testament as we use “heart,” and has nothing to do with bowels. It should be translated “compassion.”

How abideth.—In 1 John 2:15 it was eternal life; here St. John thinks of our love to God as one of the two chief signs and products of eternal life: eternal life bringing into activity its relation to its source.

(18) The words “My little children,” are, as usual, a mark of a sudden access of warmth, tenderness, and earnestness. “Word,” of course, is antithetical to “deed,” “tongue” to “truth.” The construction of the first pair (which is different from that of the second) implies merely the instruments of the love; that of the second implies its whole condition. St. John hints that there is some danger of this conventionality amongst his friends, and earnestly exhorts them to genuineness. He forbids all the traitorous babble of heartless insincerity, and urges that just, active, straightforward, all-embracing affection which was complete in Christ alone. (Comp. Romans 12:9; Ephesians 4:15; James 2:15-17; 1 Peter 1:22; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 John 3:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/1-john-3.html. 1905.

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