An Unsettling Lack of Confidence (3:18-20)

This next short section begins with a pastoral exhortation that Christians live out their love. In the contrast between words or tongue on the one hand and actions and in truth on the other, the Elder urges his readers to live in conformity to what he knows to be the truth, the revelation of God's love in Jesus himself (Kysar 1986:85).

In verse 19 there is an implicit promise that believers can know that [they] belong to the truth, a promise closely linked to the exhortation of verse 18 to love . . . with actions and in truth. Love for one another gives us assurance that we belong to the truth, because love is a visible man ifestation that we know the God who is truth and love (4:8, 16). Because we know that we are of the truth, we set our hearts at rest in [God's] presence. The Elder previously has spoken of coming to God in confes sion (2:1), of having confidence before God at the coming of Christ (2:28) and at the judgment (4:17), and later he will speak of the con fidence believers have with God when they pray (5:14-15). In the pre sent passage, however, John does not have in view a specific time or instance when we come into God's presence, for whenever believers come before God, they come with confidence rather than fear (compare 4:17-18), anxiety or self-incrimination. Confidence before God springs from our relationship with God, and that kind of confidence is as natural in God's children as the confidence of children in their human parents.

While the epistle promises that we can have assurance that we belong to the truth, as evidenced by our deeds of love, there may be times when we feel we have not lived this out, and so our hearts incriminate and condemn us (3:19b). In those times, the Elder reminds us, we are to remember that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. The twin affirmations that God is greater than our hearts and knows everything imply that the human heart is not the final standard of judgment or mercy: rather, God is, and God's power keeps believers from the onslaughts of the world. God's greater power insures the faithfulness of the Johannine Christians (compare Jn 10:29; 14:28; 1 Jn 4:4; 5:9). They need not fear even if their hearts were to condemn them, for God knows those who belong to the flock. The ultimate basis of our relationship to God and confidence with God is not the steadfastness of Christians but the greatness of God. As Jesus said, "My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand" (Jn 10:29).

We may see here the Elder's concern to strengthen discouraged indi viduals in the face of challenges hurled at them by the secessionists. Despite the secessionists' claims to belong to the truth, John argues that when their claim is tested against the standard of genuine love, they come up short. The Johannine Christians need not be anxious that it may in fact be their own claim to know God that is defective: they can know that they belong to the truth, because they have committed themselves to loving the children of God by remaining steadfast in fellowship.

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