1 John 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Resources » Commentaries » 1 John » Chapter 2 » exegesis

The Privileges of the Children of God

We come first to a section on the privileges of the children of God. Quite simply, those who are children of God have confidence with God, a theme that is repeated often in the epistle. Such repetition suggests that the readers may well have lacked this confidence, and John wishes to instill in them a vibrant conviction of their salvation. At the least, the return again and again to the theme of assurance points to the beliefs and experience of the author himself. He affirms that in Christ we can indeed have con fidence with God, and he has experienced this in his own life.Confidence with God (2:28-29)

In a section that deals with Chris tian confidence, it may seem odd that the author begins with the exhor tation to continue in him (that is, in Jesus). By now readers of 1 John are familiar with admonitions to "live in him" (2:6) and to let the word of God "remain" in them (v. 24). They can be assured that as a result they will "live forever" (v. 17) and that they will "remain in the Son and in the Father" (v. 24). All these promises and commands use the favorite Johannine term menein, "abide." To say that certain things "abide" in the faithful offers them assurance, for "abiding" connotes the perma nence of God's blessings.

But if God's blessings are sure and secure, why must believers be commanded to "remain" (2:27) and to continue (v. 28) in their faith? Do these commands suggest that these readers can lose their status as God's children? Are they in danger of facing God's judgment? These various commands, which urge continued steadfastness, are not in tended to frighten the readers or to suggest their inadequacies or failures to abide in Christ. Quite the contrary, these words encourage them to continue faithfully in the direction that they have been heading all along. The command admonishes them, but it does so by affirming them in their present course. They have abided; they must continue to do so. Encouragement and exhortation are joined together.

When we continue faithfully in relationship with God, we can be confident and unashamed before God when Christ comes. These two adjectives suggest opposing positions: one will either come into God's presence confident or one will come in shame. The shame of which the elder speaks is not the shame that believers sometimes imagine that they will or ought to feel in the presence of one who is righteous and pure. It is not embarrassment for those things which we have done wrong. In fact, it is not something that believers are expected to experience at all. Rather, the "shame" that is spoken of here is the disgrace or rejection that unbelievers will experience when they come into judgment. And, in context, those who come into such "disgrace" are those who do not "abide."

On the other hand, the confidence that believers have is the boldness to approach God when the coming of Jesus signals divine judgment. The epistle uses two words for Jesus' coming, "appearing" (phaneroun) and "coming" (parousia). "Appears" can also be translated "is revealed," suggesting an open and public revelation of Jesus. The word for "com ing" (parousia) is a technical term in theological language for the return, or Second Coming, of Jesus. It referred in antiquity to the coming of a dignitary or king, with open splendor and honor. To speak of Jesus' "appearing" and public return does not suggest that his first coming was somehow secretive. And yet it is true that there was a hiddenness about it, for not all recognized or received him as the Messiah and Son of God (3:1). In the same way, the world does not recognize Christians to be children of God (3:1). But a time is coming when Jesus' true status will be made known publicly. And when Jesus "appears," those who have been faithful, who have "abided," may approach God openly and with great confidence (parresia). This term connotes speaking with frankness and openness and points to the privilege of those who are children of God. There is nothing that hinders their relationship with God.

The command ("abide in Christ") functions, then, in two ways. On the one hand, it exhorts readers to continued faithfulness to God as God is made known in Christ. Yet, on the other hand, it is a promise. For it promises to those who continue in their commitment to God that noth ing will bring them to shame at the judgment. In this light, the statement you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of [God] seems both out of place and possibly even at odds with the promise of confidence before God. For who truly "does right" just as [Christ] is righteous?

Two points must be noted. First, the statement serves to remind read ers that righteousness is not simply an intention or feeling, but is manifested in deed and truth, in the moral quality of one's life. Righteousness is the responsibility of those privileged to be God's children. Second, righteous behavior provides confirmation of our relationship with God. Righteous conduct does not make us God's children. Rather, such con duct is the consequence or expression of a relationship that already exists. "To do righteousness" means to "practice it as a pattern of life which comes from one's very nature" (Culpepper 1985:56). Privilege carries with it responsibility. This leads directly to reflections on the designation children of God.The Children of God (3:1-3)

Three important ideas are inherent in the assertion that we are God's children: First, it is by God's initiative and power that we are born as the children of God. We do not bring about this relationship any more than a newborn baby caused its own birth and gave itself life.

Second, that God calls us children of God inaugurates a reality that will be brought to its fruition at a future time. Again, as a newborn baby lies in its parents' arms, they see it with eyes of hope, possibility and promise. A newborn's birth is not the goal of its existence; its growth and maturity are. Third, that we are God's children is evidence of God's active and creative love for us.

In its translation of 3:1 (how great is the love . . .), the NIV stresses the amount or extent of God's love for us. But we should not overlook the fact that it is the way that God has loved us which shows us how great that love is. The kind of love God demonstrates is active and creative love, which "calls" us the children of God. "Calling" means more than naming. It means the inauguration of a relationship, of a reality that can best be pictured by the metaphor of being God's own children. By God's creative act of love, we belong to God as surely and permanently as children belong to their parents. The Elder emphasizes this new relation ship when he writes, And that is what we are! and now we are children of God. We do not simply look at a love that is external to us and marvel at its greatness; we know a love that resides within us. As Westcott comments, God's love is not simply exhibited, it is imparted to us (1966:93).

With the address to his dear friends (RSV "beloved"; Gk agapetoi) the Elder also emphasizes God's love (agape) for his children and their status as loved by God. And yet there is more to be said. The present fact that we are children of God is contrasted with two things: the lack of present recognition by the world (v. 1), and the future revelation of what we shall be (v. 2).

The world's failure to recognize Christians as God's children could refer to a general lack of understanding on the part of unbelievers as to what Christian life and claims are all about. In the historical context it may also refer specifically to the failure of the dissidents to accept the claims of the Johannine Christians. But the Elder reminds his readers that such lack of recognition should not surprise them, for the world did not recognize Jesus' relationship to God either (Jn 8:19; 15:24; 16:3; even "his own" did not receive him, Jn 1:10). But even as there will come a time of public manifestation and recognition of Jesus (2:28), so there will be a full revelation of what the children of God will be (3:2, following the reading in the NIV footnote). If we are God's children now, even though the world does not recognize us, what we shall be someday is not known even to us. But since God's children are to reflect God, and since we are promised that when we see God we shall be like [God], we can assume that what we shall be someday brings to fullness and completion the identity that we now cherish as God's own children.

Thus when Jesus appears (2:28) we will be transformed (3:2), and we shall be like [God], for we shall see [God] as [God] is (supplying the probable referent "God" for the ambiguous pronoun "him"). Both the Gospel and epistles assert that "no one has ever seen God" (Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 4:12, 20) except the Son, who makes God known. The statement we shall see him as he is does not imply that we have somehow been misled in understanding God or that we have been granted an inadequate vision of God in Jesus (Jn 14:8-10), any more than it implies that our present status as children of God is somehow inadequate or unsatisfactory. Just as it is true that we shall be changed, so also is it true that a future and new "seeing" of God is promised. We shall see God face to face, even as the Son who is "always at the Father's side" (Jn 1:1-18) sees God. Here John is not so much interested in speculating on what God is like, or precisely what we shall see in our future vision of God. Rather, the accent falls upon knowing God more fully and intimately than is possible for us now.

And when we see God, we shall become like God. This statement in 3:2 is closely linked to the statement in 3:3 that all those who have the hope of seeing God purify themselves, just as [Jesus] is pure. Again, the model for our relationship to God is the way in which Jesus relates to God. Jesus has seen God; Jesus is pure as God is pure. There may be an implicit reference here to the first "appearing" of Jesus to take away sin (1:7; 3:8). From the beginning to the end of our Christian existence, our hope is in the "appearing" or coming of Christ for us. Our transfor mation depends on his nature and work: he is pure, and takes impurity away. Thus those who have the hope of Jesus' coming purify themselves, just as he is pure (compare 3:5). Hope itself makes us pure, because our hope is trust in Christ's purifying and cleansing work for us.

And so the privilege of being God's children also holds within it the responsibility of living in accordance with the model given to us by God and lived out by Jesus. The privilege also carries with it the promise that someday we shall know the invisible God more fully than we do now, and that when we come to that time, we shall also know ourselves to be pure before him. Responsibility and promise will merge, both ful filled--not by our own efforts so much as by the work of the One who created us and re-created us in his own image.

Previous commentary:
Warnings Against Antichrists

Next commentary:
Remembering Who We Are: The Children of God

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations