Have you ever been caught off guard by a visitor to your house? Perhaps it’s 4:00 PM and you’re already (or still!) in your pyjamas when suddenly your gate intercom rings and you look out the window to see a church member standing at your gate. Or perhaps you don’t have a gate intercom but your phone rings and a friend tells you that they are at your gate to just drop something off quickly. You don’t want to be rude and keep them waiting but you’re really not in any condition to receive visitors! It can be an awkward situation.
John picks up on a similar theme in 2:28–3:10 when he asks his readers a simple question: Are you ready? Christ was coming and they needed to be ready for what would happen when he came. The question remains relevant for us. Happily, John both asks the question and provides the answer.
First John 2:28–29 form a hinge section between what went before and what follows, and we could have addressed these verses in our previous study, but I have chosen to include them here. Last time, we saw that John exhorted his readers to, in the face of threat from the antichrist spirit, abide in the Scriptures (2:24–25) and abide in the Spirit (2:26–27). He continues that theme of abiding here. Abiding, in fact, was the key to their readiness for the coming of Christ. Simply stated, John argues that his readers would be ready for Christ’s second appearing (2:28–3:3) if they responded appropriately to his first appearing (3:4–10). The appropriate response was to abide in him. We will consider these verses under two very broad headings.
Confidence at Christ’s Future Appearing
As I have said, 2:28–29 form a hinge between what came before and what follows. In what went before, John was concerned that the believers to whom he was writing were so focused on uncovering the identity of the coming Antichrist that they had missed the presence of the antichrists who had already infiltrated their church. Here, he writes of another danger of their overemphasis on the Antichrist: Their obsession with the identity of the Antichrist was leaving them insufficiently focused on Christ! He wanted them to be sure that they focused on Christ’s future appearing so that they could face it with confidence rather than shame (v. 28).
A preliminary word must be said about the “coming” of Christ described in v. 28. We must not allow it to detract from the main point, but there is an interpretive question here. What is the “coming” of Christ described here?
In our last study, I argued that “the last hour” (2:18) is a reference to the final years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Both Revelation and the Olivet Discourse describe this event as Christ’s “coming” in judgement upon an apostate generation. It is quite possible that John has this same “coming” in mind here. He wanted his readers to face this “coming” with confidence rather than shame.
Another possibility is that this “coming” is a reference to Christ’s final coming in judgement on the last day—that is, to what is commonly referred to as his second coming.
The question is, does 2:28 reference his coming in judgement on Jerusalem or his future coming in final judgement? I lean toward the latter, for reasons I will try to explain as we work through this text.
Remember that John’s overriding concern is that his readers will abide in the truth by abiding in Christ. This abiding is crucial because it is the difference between confidence and shame at Christ’s return. Jesus Christ is coming back. When he does, he will come as the final judge of all men. Every human being who has ever lived will stand before him, either with “confidence” or with “shame.” The prophet Daniel wrote of it this way: “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2).
The difference between confidence and shame at the final judgement is the difference between belief and unbelief. Believers in Jesus Christ will face the final judgement with confidence and inherit eternal life; unbelievers will face the final judgement with shame and inherit eternal punishment. John’s readers were in danger of facing the final judgement with shame if they believed the false gospel promoted by the Gnostic heretics. He exhorted to them, therefore, to “abide.” Abide in Christ by abiding in the Scriptures and abiding in the Spirit. But he anticipates, and answers, two questions: How do we know that we are abiding? and, what is the benefit of abiding?
The Proof of Abiding
First, John answers the question, how can we know that we are abiding in Christ? That is, what is the proof of abiding? He writes, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (2:28–29).
As I have said, I interpret the “coming” in these verses to be a reference to his second coming, which will usher in the final judgement. One reason I take that interpretation is because 3:1–3 clearly has that event in mind. Another reason is because John says that this “coming” will happen “when he appears.”
“Coming” is a word that speaks of splendour and dignity. It was used in Greek culture of nobles or warriors “coming” into a city with great pomp. “Appear[ing],” on the other hand, seems to emphasise a physical, visible appearance. The writer to the Hebrews also referenced this event when he wrote of Christ “having been offered once to bear the sins of many” who will “appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). I think that both John and the writer to the Hebrews were writing of Christ’s two physical, visible appearances to earth.
When applied to the Godhead, the word translated “appears” is used only in reference to the Son, and never in reference to the Father or the Spirit. Only the Son appeared physically on earth. He did so when he was laid in a manger on the first Christmas morning and will again appear in our future when he will physically and visibly appear at his return.
John’s readers would face this “appearing” and “coming” either with “confidence” or with “shame.” He desperately wanted them to face it with confidence but knew that, if they embraced the lie of the Gnostics, they would face it with shame. Perhaps after reading his strong words against the Gnostics in the previous section, his readers themselves wondered whether they would face that appearing with confidence or shame. Perhaps they wondered if it was possible to know for sure. John writes to let them know how they can know that they will face Christ’s appearing with confidence: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (2:29).
Now, note carefully (and we will see this again a little later) that he does not say that practising righteousness earns favour with God. Practising righteousness comes after one has been born of God and is, in fact, the evidence that one “has been” born of him. But it is an indisputable and non-negotiable evidence.
You will remember that, because of the sharp distinction they drew between the flesh and the spirit, the Gnostics claimed that one’s lifestyle in the flesh was irrelevant to their relationship with God. A believer, they claimed, can live however he pleases in the flesh and it will have no bearing whatever on his spiritual state. John flatly contradicts their teaching by stating that everyone who has been born by God will practise righteousness.
Throughout this section, and particularly in 3:4–10, John goes to great lengths to argue that “practising righteousness” and “practising sin” are the two extreme evidences of one’s state before God. Those who practise righteousness can have confidence in the future day of judgement. Those who practise sin will face that day with deep shame.
Notice that John specifically speaks of those who practise righteousness (and, later, those who practise sin). His emphasis is on a consistent lifestyle. Only those who consistently (though imperfectly) practise righteousness have cause to assume that they will face the final judgement with confidence.
John asks his readers, and asks us, to consider their life in light of the reality of judgement. How does the thought of final judgement affect the way you live? Does the reality of final judgement affect the way you conduct business, the way you parent, the kind of spouse you are, your conduct in work and leisure, and your interaction with fellow church members? If you knew that the final trumpet would sound tomorrow, would your life be radically different today or are you making the practice of righteousness your consistent habit? Those who abide in Christ evidence it by a consistent practice of righteousness. Do you?
The Promise of Abiding
Second, John wants to answer the question, what is the benefit of abiding in Christ? In 3:1–3, he gives God’s promise to those who abide in him:
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
(1 John 3:1–3)
John here asserts that the Father has “given” us a “kind” of love that makes us “children of God.” The word translated “kind” is a word of origins. It highlights that this love is not of this world; it is an otherworldly love that makes us children of God. God has “given” us this love. We did not earn it. The Greek tense suggests that this love was “given” once and can never be retracted. Once God gives us this love, it is ours forever.
This love would be unbelievable were it not promised in Scripture. David Allen tells the story of a missionary working among Hindus who produced a translation of the New Testament. When he translated this verse, he did not render it “that we should be called the children of God” but “that we should be allowed to kiss his feet.” When he was asked why he translated it so differently, he responded, “‘Children of God!’ that is too much—too high!” But, of course, that is the glory of the gospel: that, by God’s otherworldly love, expressed in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are transformed into children of God.
Unlike Paul, who most frequently referred to Christians as “sons” of God, John was fond of referring to Christians as God’s “children.” The first century distinction might be lost on us today, but it is an important one.
In Roman culture, sons received a legal inheritance. Daughters received inheritance only indirectly, through marriage, but sonship granted one full legal inheritance. “Sons” is therefore a term that signifies inheritance. That is why Paul contrasts “sons” with “slaves” in Galatians 4:6–7—and why he does not say “sons and daughters.” Every Christian—male and female—receives full son status in Christ and is guaranteed full inheritance through the gospel.
“Children,” on the other hand, “describes origin, birth, family relationships, family likeness, and family characteristics” (David Allen). What is the first question we ask when we meet a new baby? “Who does he look like?” Does he have his mother’s eyes or his father’s? Is that a maternal or a paternal nose? Which grandparent or uncle or cousin does she most resemble? It is reasonable to expect that a child will inherit family likeness.
John is making the same argument here. God’s children practice righteousness because God is righteous. It is a characteristic that they inherit from him. This seems strange to the unbelieving world. Since unbelievers do not share that family connection, they do not share the family resemblance and so God’s children appear very much unlike them. Unbelievers don’t care about practicing righteousness. Believers do.
But there is an even more glorious promise than our present practise of righteousness. Since “we are God’s children now,” we do practise righteousness in the present. But it is a tainted practice of righteousness because we still struggle with sin. That struggle will not, however, last forever. “What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (3:2). Christ lived a life of perfect righteousness. He never once gave into the temptations he faced. And while Christians do grow in Christlikeness, they will only be fully like him “when he appears.” And every Christian will be like him when he appears!
Here, then, is the glorious promise of the gospel: God will keep those who abide in him abiding until that final day when they are all perfectly conformed to the image of Christ. The Gnostics had walked away from the faith, which means that they were never in the faith to begin with. It may have seemed that they were in the faith, but they left that it might be evident that they were never really of God’s people. John here reminds his readers of Christ’s promise that he will never let go of those who come to him.
However, this promise of keeping did not mean that John’s readers could live like rank pagans. The practical result of the promise of future glorification is that “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (3:3). Those who profess to be God’s children and to therefore be heading for eternal conformity to Christ’s image make a point of pursuing purity in the here and now. They are concerned to practise righteousness because their Saviour is righteous and they want to be like him.
Confidence in Christ’s Past Appearing
And so John has written with the concern that his readers be prepared to face the future appearing of Christ with confidence rather than shame. In the second part of our text (3:4–10) he argues that the way to be prepared for the future appearing of Christ is to respond appropriately to the past appearing of Christ.
We have just come out of the Christmas season, in which we remember the incarnation of the Son of God. Far too often, we make Christmas about family and fun and food and presents. We may sing about “silent night” and rejoice in the peace that was promised to God’s people through the incarnation. But we forget that the incarnation was, in reality, a declaration of war. John tells us as much here, reminding us that Christ “appeared in order to take away sins” (3:5) and that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). “The works of the devil” are sinful works and Christ “appeared in order to take away sins.” For John’s readers to buy into the lie of the Gnostic heretics was to embrace the works of the devil rather than the work of Christ.
In essence, John argues in this section that, to be prepared to face the second coming with confidence, we must embrace the work of Christ (taking away sins) rather than the work of the devil (embracing sins). We know that we are abiding in Christ if, by faith, we have embraced the reason for which he came to earth. At the same time, we can only abide as we should when we realise that the ability to do so is not our own.
The Practice of Abiding
John writes, first, of the practice of abiding:
Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practises lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practises righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
(1 John 3:4–8)
The Gnostics were indifferent to sin. John was not. The Scriptures are not. God is not. John goes to great lengths to talk about sin and the Christian’s proper attitude toward sin.
He begins by defining sin: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” To sin is to actively reject and disobey the will of God. We have a tendency to define sin by its consequences to others: If it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s not really that bad. John argues that it is the sin itself that is the problem, not only its consequences. If Christ “appeared in order to take away sin” and if “in him there is no sin,” surely those who are his people cannot be indifferent to sin. Indifference to sin undermines the very purpose for which Christ came.
Christian, what is your attitude toward sin? Is it one of indifference? Do you realise that, by your indifference to sin, you are undermining the work that Christ came to accomplish?
Christians are less likely to be indifferent to the “big” sins that directly and negatively affect others. We frown upon murder and adultery and theft and corruption because they directly, obviously, and negatively affect other people. But what about those “lesser” sins?
What is your attitude to discontentment? The writer to the Hebrews exhorted, “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). Do you struggle with discontentment? Are you always looking for more than what you have? Are you always longing for the good gifts that God has given to others? Do you reason that your discontentment doesn’t really hurt anyone else, so why should you feel bad about it? But the Scriptures tell us to be content with what God has given to us and to disobey that instruction is sin. It is lawlessness. It is a sin that Christ came to take away.
What about ingratitude? When Paul writes of the downfall of humanity in Romans 1, he recalls that humans “did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” Their ingratitude resulted in idolatry so that “God gave them up in the lusts of their heart” (Romans 1:18–25). Are we thankful to God for the gifts he has given to us or do we take them for granted? Do we express thanks to him for what he has given to us or do we assume he knows we are thankful? Are we willing to express gratitude to those whom God has used in our lives as a blessing? Ingratitude may be a respectable sin, but it is a sin that Christ came to put away.
Consider the sins of the tongue that are so often tolerated among us: gossip, slander, backbiting. Are you willing to talk unnecessarily about others behind their backs, reasoning that what they don’t know about won’t really hurt them anyway? This is a sin far too often tolerated in the church but, like all respectable sins, it is a sin that Christ came to put away and to indulge in it is to undermine the very purpose for which Christ came.
John has been writing to his little children to remind them that the only way to have confidence in final judgement is to abide in Christ. And “no one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (3:6). A life characterised by habitual sin is a life that testifies that we have neither seen nor known Christ. If John’s little children embraced the lie of the Gnostics, they would directly deny Christ, who came to put away the sins to which the Gnostics were so entirely indifferent.
In fact, “whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” and “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). The Gnostics claimed to be preaching the true Christ but, in fact, they were promoting the works of the devil, which Christ appeared to destroy.
The respectable sins that we so often tolerate are not only wrong; they are devilishly wrong. These sins, says Jerry Bridges, are “an assault on the majesty and sovereign rule of God” and are “indeed cosmic treason.”
We must not miss the order of events here: God’s otherworldly love has made us children of God, which is why we practise righteousness rather than sin. God’s otherworldly love makes us like our Father and our older brother. We take on the family characteristics because we have been born of God. Practising righteousness does not earn us the love that makes us children of God but evidences the fact that we have been made children of God.
The Power for Abiding
Having placed as much emphasis as he has on the proof and the practice of abiding as the means to facing final judgement with confidence, John does not want to leave his readers thinking that they must assume this responsibility in their own strength. Instead, he closes this section by pointing them to the divine power that Christians have for abiding in Christ:
No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practise righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
(1 John 3:9–10)
John again stresses that “no one born of God makes a practice of sinning” and indeed “cannot keep on sinning” but now gives the encouraging reason that he can say that: “for God’s seed abides in him” and “he has been born of God.” The power we need to abide in Christ, in other words, is available because his “seed” abides in us.
“Seed” is here a reference to the divine nature that we have by virtue of the new birth. It is paralleled with “he has been born of God.” When you were converted, you were given a new nature that wants to please God. In a sense, Christians can do whatever they want because Christians want to do what pleases God. He has transformed their desires so that they now desire to do what is pleasing to him. While Christians still sin (1:5–10), it is not something they take pleasure in. They instead desire to do what is pleasing to God, and since this nature resides in them through the gospel, they do not make a practice of sinning. It is this desire-transforming seed that makes it “evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil.” The child of the devil is the one who “does not practice righteousness” and who “does not love his brother.”
So, the question before us remains: Are you ready? Are you ready to face the final judgement with confidence or will you face it with shame? You know by how you respond to Christmas—by how you respond to the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He appeared to take away sin and to destroy the works of the devil. If you embrace him and his work by faith, you can be transformed, by the otherworldly love of God, into a child of God, who makes a practice of righteousness, and then you can confidently, rather than shamefully, face the final judgement, resting on the finished work of Christ. How will you respond today?