12 November 2008

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 28 to 3: 10

Abide in him ... detail from an icon of Christ the True Vine

Patrick Comerford

I John 2: 28- 3: 10: The servants become Children of God

I John 2: 28 -3: 10 is one whole unit. Some commentators think verses 28-29 with verses 26-27, but most say this is not the case.

The first part, 2: 28 to 3: 3, deals with the Children of God, with verses 28-29 introducing what is being said in 3: 1-3. The verses in 3: 1-3 seem out of place unless we understand them as coming between two parts, each dealing with the Children of God and their relationship with God as Father. Then, in the second part, the author of this epistle writes about the Children of God avoiding sin.

2: 28-29, The servants become Children of God:

Verse 28: Children of God:

The disciples, who have been called first as servants or slaves, were raised, in the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel, to the rank of friends of Christ (John 15: 15). Now, in I John, they move even closer, from being friends of Christ to being Children of God.

Then in Verse 28, the writer turns to the idea of union with God and with Christ at his coming. In the Fourth Gospel, the parousia or the return of Christ at the end of time is not a frequent thought. But I John makes the connection between realised and final eschatology: while Christ is present to each Christian, the fullness of union is only possible with his final return.

Our present union with Christ enables us as Christians to face with confidence Christ’s return in judgment, either in death or at the end of world.

Verse 28: “abide in him” (NRSV), “remain in him” (RSV):

John calls on believers to abide in Christ, so that when he returns we may have confidence before him. Those who abide in him will have no need to shrink from him in shame at his coming. What does it mean that he is coming? The Greek conveys the idea of someone returning who is not now physically present. Christ is coming to take home those who abide in him.

What does it mean to abide in Christ? The themes of divine indwelling, keeping the commandments and abiding love are at the heart of the passage on the vine and the branches in the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. There Jesus says:

“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15: 4-11).”

To abide in Christ means bearing spiritual fruit, and that there will be growth (John 15: 4). Abiding in Christ means we are obedient to what he teaches, to his commands (John 15: 10, 14).

Verse 29: “born of him” (NRSV), “begotten of him” (RSV):

I think John really answers the question for us in verse 29. Those who practice righteousness are those who abide in him.Why is this? Because if God is righteous we can be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. This righteousness is evidence that someone is a believer.

What does it mean to be born of God? The idea of being “born of him” or “begotten of him” probably refers to the Father, despite the confusing shifting between the Father and the Son. And this idea is the presupposition of acting righteously – the Father’s love is always the source of sanctification.

Two pairs of verses in the Fourth Gospel give clear pictures of what it means to be born of God.

● John 1: 12-13: verse 12 says those who receive Christ and who believe in his name are given the power to become children of God. The Greek word use there for “power,” exousia, literally means power of choice, liberty of doing as one pleases, with permission, authority, privilege and power in the power of him whose will and commands must be submitted to by others and obeyed. John 1: 13 says those who believe are born not of blood, the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God and God alone.

● John 3: 3, 5-6: When Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, he says in verse 3 you must be born again, and that without being born again no-one can see the kingdom of God. We must be born of the Spirit.

3: 1-3, Children of God:

We are the adopted Children of God. What comes to mind when you think of adoption? Are your images positive or negative? In verses 1-3, John bursts forth in praise because of the great love that God has given to us. Through adoption, God takes people who are not his children and makes them his children. Christ is the source of our being sons and daughters of the Father.

The world is incapable of knowing God and therefore is incapable of knowing his children, who are like him.

Verse 1:

The source of being made children of God, is God’s love. God has given us his love so we can be children of God, not just in name but in reality.

Verse 2:

We are God’s children now, and will remain God’s children for ever. We do not know now what we will be like, but we do know we will be like Christ when he is revealed or manifested, and we will be children of God forever.

Verse 3:

Sanctity or purity is our best preparation for being like God, and for seeing him.

I John 3: 4-10, avoiding sin:

Sin is the great obstacle to being a child of God. The word used here for sin, amartia, means being without a share, missing the mark, erring, being mistaken, missing or wandering from the path of uprightness and honour. In other words, wandering from the law of God or violating God’s law.

By stressing that sin is iniquity, I John may mean that sin is the mark of the children of Satan, when we consider New Testament concepts such as “the man of iniquity” and the “mystery of iniquity” (see II Thessalonians 2: 3-7).

In verses 4-10, we are told what a child of God will look like. The believer purifies himself as he is pure. The Greek word here for purify signifies a moral purity. It is a present active indicative, which means it is a continuous real action – the believer will be morally pure as God is pure.

In verse 4-6, we see three things:

Firstly, in verse 4, we have a definition of sin. Sin is lawlessness. Those who practice sin practice lawlessness, practice disobedience to what God has commanded in his word.

Secondly, in verse 5, Christ appeared to take away sins. What makes Christ eligible for this? Because there is no sin in him. Because he is without sin, he can take away sin.

Thirdly, in verse 6, no one who abides in Christ keeps on sinning. Those who abide in Christ cannot continually sin. The word sinning here is a present active indicative, which represents a real action that is continuous. The believer cannot continually sin. Why is this? Because they abide in Christ who came to take away sins so they cannot continue in it. We are Christ’s and there is no sin in him, therefore his followers are to be like him. No one who keeps on sinning knows Jesus Christ; they have not been adopted by God.

Verse 7:

If the child of God is marked by freedom from sin, the child of the devil is marked by sin. The Gnostics claimed they knew the righteous one, but they lived unrighteous lives. So John says those who practice righteousness are of the Father, they are the true believers, they are children of God. The way we live should back up our claims.

Verse 8:

Here the writer draws a comparison. He says whoever makes a practice of sinning is a child of the devil. Those who sin continually are not children of God, but are children of the devil. The devil has been sinning from the beginning. Sin has its origin in the devil, not God. The child of God cannot continue in sin because Christ appeared to destroy the works of the devil. The believer cannot be in bondage to sin because Christ destroyed the works of the devil, sin, for them.

Verse 9:

The writer says no one born of God keeps sinning because God’s seed abides in him. The one who believes cannot continually sin because the seed of God, the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, abides in them. While the Johannine Christians knew that sin is something evil, the secessionists, on the other hand, thought id not affect union with God. But the believer, cannot continually sin because he has been born of God. Yes, we do sin, but this is in spite of, not because of, being children of God.

Verse 10:

This section ends with a negative statement. John says this is how we tell who the children of God are, and who the children of the devil are: whoever does not practice righteousness, whoever does not love the other Christian, does not belong to God, is not one of the children of God.

Next week: I John 3: 11-24

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepare for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 12 November 2008.

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