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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.