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Who Is On the Lord's Side? (1 John 2:28-3:10)

Who Is on the Lord’s Side?
1 John 2:28—3:10

Minister’s Summary:
The hallmark of heavenly community is love. There is no place for the works of the devil in this community! The proof that one belongs to Christ rather than Satan is a distinctive lifestyle of love for one’s brothers and sisters. Parentage reveals

Exegetical Notes

This section is an exhortation to live as God’s children, that is, to live a godly life in the light and to live a life of love. The exhortation is rooted in the doxological understanding of God’s grace in calling us his children. Since we are his children, let us live as his children.

The Structure of the Text

"Everyone Who..."
TextNominal ParticipleVerbal Result
A2:29beveryone who does righteousnesshas been born of him
B3:4aeveryone who does sinalso breaks the law
C3:6aeveryone who abides in himdoes not sin
D3:6beveryone who sinshas never seen nor known him
A'3:7b[everyone] who does righteousnessis righteous
B'3:8a[everyone] who does sinis of the devil
C'3:9aeveryone who has been born of Goddoes not sin
D'3:10beveryone who does not do righteousness and does not love his brotheris not of God

This structure clearly marks 3:1-3 as parenthetical. It breaks the flow of the text, and language of 3:1-3 ("Behold") indicates a spontaneous sense of wonder and praise evoked by the wondrous thought that we truly are children of God as reflected in the final words of chapter 2 ("born of God"). In order to pick up the structure again, John concludes his parenthesis (3:3b) with another "everyone who" saying which is a synonymous parallel with 2:29b. This keeps the symmetry of the text. Such care indicates how carefully constructed the document is rather than one that is a haphazard, free-flowing, careless redundancy.

3:3aeveryone who has hope this hope in himpurifies himself

The structure, then, is four pairs of sayings (with a parenthesis). It has a chiastic flow. Further, it begins and ends on the idea of divine begetting or origin. The fundamental contrast is between the divine origin of the Johannine community versus the devilish origin of the deceivers (presumably the secessionists).

The righteousness (law-keeping) envisioned and the sin rejected (law-breaking) is the lack of love for the family of God. Those who are born of God love the family of God. The righteousness envisioned is obedience to the "command" of 2:7. The one who does not do righteousness is the one who "does not love his brother" (3:10). This, then, is the concluding line that leads John into a fuller exposition of what it means to love one's brother (3:11-5:12).

The "dear children" and the "and now" of 2:28 provide a natural break with the previous section, and also offers an introductory topic sentence for the whole section: confidence at the second coming of Jesus.

Our Confidence (2:28).

Here we see John's eschatological interests. He is looking from the end-time. Confidence and lack of shame are eschatological values. As we abide in Christ (walk in the light, keep the command to love the brothers, remember the truth of the anointing), we will have confidence in the climatic eschatological event--the coming of Christ.

John has used the word "revealed" for the incarnation (twice in 1 John 1:2; 3:5,8; 4:10). But "revealed" is used for the second coming in 2:28 and 3:2. It is a further revelation of Jesus Christ. The first one is incomplete though it served its purpose. There is yet another revealing. Thus, there is a sense of eschatological completion. This comes out most clearly in the parenthetical note.

The theme of "confidence" and "shame" is important because one of John's purposes is that Christians might "know" they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). That knowledge includes a confidence about the eschaton and the second revelation of Jesus Christ. John uses "boldness" four times (2:28; 3:21; 4:17; 5:14). "Shame" only here.

Children of God (2:29-3:6).

Since we are “born of God,” we are called to righteousness (2:29, 3:4). Born of God is the key idea here, as indicated by the parenthesis and his use of the term elsewhere in 1 John. This is the first use of the term (2:28; also 3:9[2]; 4:7; 5:1[3], 4, 18[2]). This introduces the theme into the letter.

This means that righteousness is a standard for behavior. This is because Christ is himself righteous. Note the Christological standard here--Christology is never far from John's mind. The ethical character of Jesus Christ is the model and pattern for Christian behavior.

We are Children of God! (3:1-3). This is a subject of doxological wonder (3:1). I take this as a digression from the flow of the letter. It is a doxological interruption which expresses awe and wonder. The love of the Father is the source of this wonder. At the same time this "wonder" explains why the world is hostile to the Christian community--the world does not know the Father like we know the Father.

It is a wonder, however, that is filled with eschatological anticipation and expectation (3:2-3). While there is a "now," there is also a "not yet." John's eschatology -- his living on the edge of history -- is filled with hope. That hope is defined by a full revelation of God in Jesus Christ and full conformation to the image of Jesus Christ. 3:3 returns to 2:29 for its theme and enables a smooth transition to 3:4. This hope purifies us in the present, but yet wait for the fullness of that purity when the purity of Christ is revealed eschatologically.

But Christology is not only a positive paradigm. It is a negative model. How do we treat sin and relate to sin (3:4-6)? He has no sin and he came to take away sin (the expiatory function of Christ's atoning work). Thus, we are called to reject sin as well. "Lawlessness" here refers primarily to the love command and the anarchy of relationships where there is no righteousness.

Children of the Devil (3:7-10).

The Secessionists work for the Devil; they are of the Devil (3:7-8). They are the deceivers. Satan has been sinning since the beginning. Exactly what John has in mind here is unclear, but he will clarify it later in the epistle and hints at it in 3:10b. The work of the Devil is the hatred of brothers. From the beginning (even with Cain and Abel) Satan has introduced hate into the family of God.

Jesus Christ appeared to destroy the work of Satan--to renew the world with love rather than hate. The atoning work of Christ also had a negative function--to destroy the works of Satan. It intended to reverse Satanic evil.

Believers are born of God and thus have the seed of righteousness (3:9-10). The relationship between "birth" and "seed" is obvious. We have the sperm of God which generates our childlikeness. Because we are children of God (because we have been born out of his sperm), we cannot sin. As the seed remains in us, so we remain children of God and live like children of God.

Here is how we tell the difference between "children of the devil" and "children of God": doing righteousness/loving the brothers vs. sinning/hating the brothers. This is the "revelation" (manifestation; only time used in 1 John as a noun) of the difference. It is the light and the darkness in contrast; God and the Devil in contrast. The focus is on the Christological revelation of God as the light/righteousness/purity, and whether we will follow that light or seeking more Satanic avenues. Who are you? And the test is: "do you love the brothers?"

Theological Perspectives

Eschatology is important in this section. Our confidence is in the coming of Christ, and when he comes we will see him as he is and be like him. This is our hope. The darkness is passing away, but has not yet fully vanished. Rather, we are present in the world as the light in the darkness and we hope in the future when the light will fully dispel the darkness. In that moment we will be fully like Christ—but we are not yet there.

But the darkness has always been around—the Devil has been here from the beginning. Consequently, there has been a constant battle between light and darkness, between love and hate, between God and Satan. That battle now focuses on us in the present. What is our identity? Do we find our identity in the light, or in the darkness?

Christ appeared to destroy the work of the Devil. This perspective on the atonement is a bit different from the one in 2:1-2. While earlier the idea was to avert God’s wrath, here it is to reverse the work of the Devil. Theologians call this “Christus Victor,” that is, Christ the Victor who defeats the forces of evil. He defeats them, however, by his suffering servant life. He defeats them by being light in darkness and the darkness cannot exist with the light. The righteousness of Christ defeats the Devil.

So, whose side are we on? Where do we find our identity? Our identity is evidenced in the orientation of our lives. Are we oriented to sin and darkness, or are we oriented to righteousness and light? The fundamental dimension of this orientation is how we relate to the community and live in relationship with brothers and sisters. Indeed, the final phrase in this section reminds us of the basic orientation of light: loving the family (3:10b).

I think this is the meaning of saying that “one does righteousness” or the “one does not sin.” It is not about some kind of perfectionism or legalistic righteousness. To “do righteousness” is to identify with the light, pursue the light and walk in the light. It is not achieving some kind of status before God whereby we can call ourselves righteous. “To not sin” does not mean that we never sin but that we do not have a habit or a lifestyle of sinning. We are oriented to God’s light rather than pursuing the darkness. Anyone who lives in sin and continues to sin does not know the light because if they knew the light, the light would transform them.

In contemporary theology, there are two interpretations of this text which I believe are problematic. It is understandable how each of these interpretations gain a following if we abstract the words from their literary context and from the theological story of Scripture.

The first problematic interpretation is what I call the legalist construction. It has been common among Churches of Christ to use this text in a legal manner. Sin is defined in legal terms and righteousness is defined in terms of strict obedience. Indeed, the text "the one who is righteous does righteousness" has been used to define the nature of justification.

Several points undermine this particular understanding of the text. First, the primary point is about loving your brother. It is not about legalistic or strict obedience to a set of rules. The law that is in the mind of John is loving your brother. This is a relational text, not a legal one.

Second, this text is about sanctification, not justification. It discusses the quality of life in terms of those who have been born of God. The righteousness under consideration is a sanctifying righteousness not a justifying one. The "not yetness" of our purification also renders this sense of justification moot. We are not yet fully righteous, even as we are righteous when we love the brothers.

The second problematic interpretation is what I call the perfectionist construction. Wesleyan and Holiness theologians have long used this section (along with Eastern theologians as well) for perfectionistic ideas. It is rooted in the idea that the one born of God does not sin and cannot sin.

I think the appropriate response here is to say that "cannot sin" does not mean never does sin because then that would be a lie (1:9-10). "Does not sin" refers to the orientation or habitual character of sin in the life of the believer. It does not mean that we perfectly love. This text reflects an eschatological revealing where we become like the one who is revealed. There is, then, a sense of "not yet" in this text (we are not yet fully like Jesus), but there is a sense of "already" because we do not sin (that is, we do not pursue the habit of sinning; we are oriented correctly toward God's intent).

Teaching Particulars

In teaching this section, you may want to consider how 3:1-3 is a digression from the main point of the text. It is a spontaneous outbreak of praise and doxology for the wonderous thought that we are children of God. Spend some time in the class with doxology. Sing and pray with praise and thanksgiving, perhaps hear some testimonies of conversion stories.

In the light of this perspective, I have given two teaching outlines below. They can be combined, of course. But there is a different flavor to each of these sections—one is didactic (2:28-29; 3:4-10), and the other is doxological (3:1-3).

A. Whose Child are You? (2:28-29; 3:4-10)

Function of Text: The children of the world (devil) are revealed through sin and hatred, but the children of God are revealed through righteousness (light) and love.

Theology: Eschatological confidence is present through the fruit of righteous love which is evident in the lives of God's children.

Application: You know you are God's child when you love God's children.

Teaching Outline: The Signs of Belonging

1. How can I be sure? How do I know I am a child of God? What is the sign that I am a child of God?

2. We struggle with perfectionism on one hand--"only if I am perfect can I be sure," and with cheap grace on the other--"I know I'm not serving God but I am his child no matter what." The former is a lack of confidence and the latter is a false confidence.

3. Genuine confidence derives from the testimony of God's light in our life. It comes from the evidence of our new birth in the pursuit of righteousness. The seed of God generates our Christlikeness and that is the evidence that we are children of God.

4. To whom do you belong? Christ or Satan? The evidence is your lifestyle. The child of God is not oriented to sin and does not pursue a life of sin, but the child of the Devil does. The child of God participates in the work of Christ for the destruction of sin, the child of the Devil advances the kingdom of his father.

5. To whom do you belong? The test is: "do you love the brothers?" The light of God is the love of God. Righteous obedience is loving each other.

B. Doxology: We are the Children of God (3:1-3)

Function of Text: It expresses the doxological wonder of our status before God and the hopeful expectation of the fullness of that wonder.

Theology: We are already the children of God, but we have not yet received the full measure of God's gift.

Application: Praise God for his wonderful grace--both in the present and in the future.

Teaching Outline: Awesome!

[The form of this section needs to reflect the digressive nature of this text as an expression of doxological wonder. Consequently, I would saturate the worship time with praise about God's fatherhood and the wonder of his grace; perhaps even dividing the worship into two movements as delineated below.]

1. The Love of the Father: we are the children of God. God so loved the world that he called us to be his children. This is the heart of God from creation throughout redemption. We should live in confidence because of this love.

2. The Revelation of Jesus Christ: we will be fully like Jesus at his coming. God will bring about eschatological intention in Jesus when we are fully sanctified. We struggle against sin now, but then we will struggle no longer.

Questions for Discussion:

1. What motives for living a holy life does John give in this text?

2. What are the sources of tension between the believing community and the world?

3. How does “eschatology” (the second coming of Jesus) function in your Christian walk? How does it shape your lifestyle? How does it shape your ethics?

4. Share a testimony about the wondrous nature of God’s love in calling us children. Perhaps share your conversion story, or share the moment it dawned on you that you truly are a “child of God”?

5. What does it mean to say that the one born of God does not sin? How does this evidence the source of one’s identity?

6. From this text, how do you recognize the identity of others as children of God? What is the evidence that they are born of God?


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