John Allen Chau was recently martyred on North Sentinel Island. At this point, his body has not been recovered and probably will not be due to the Sentinelese resistance to outside contact. Presumably, John died on November 17. Back in 2010, when he was in high school, John spoke at his church upon returning from his first mission trip to Mexico. While on the trip, he and his friends agreed to form an accountability group to pursue holiness together. Here is what John said then, As Christians we can’t stay the same. We can’t keep living the same sinful lives we had before we became Christians…As Christians we need to change. We can’t stay the same. We either change, or we don’t believe.i
How true! As Christian we can’t keep living the same sinful lives we had before we became Christians. The Apostle John makes this very point in this text. We can’t keep living the same sinful lives because receiving Christ is such a transformational event that the Bible calls it birth. We become new persons, with a new nature, with a new parentage, with a new bent, a new tendency. We are simply not the same, and there is no going back.
John writes his epistle to a community that is being attacked by those who had defected from the community. Their defection proved that they had never truly believed (2:19). They abandoned the community itself, so they did not love the brothers. You cannot abandon people you love. My first girlfriend said she loved me so much she had to let me go. Then she started dating my best friend. I didn’t miss her much, but I sure missed him. You don’t abandon those whom you love. They abandoned the faith. They claimed to know God but denied that the Christ is Jesus (2:19). They abandoned Christian ethics. They claimed to walk in light, but they lived in sinful rebellion (1:6). They abandoned faith, obedience, and love.
John writes to the community to encourage them to remain faithful (2:28, abide in him) and not be led astray by the defectors (cf. 2:26; 3:7). This passage is framed with Christian confidence: confidence now in our most intimate relationship to God, prayer (3:21) and confidence for the future when Christ appears (2:28). To encourage the community to faithfulness (remain in him), John reminds them of their unique status as Children of God, the need to live consistently with their status, and of their need to participate in loving community.
First, John reminds the community of their unique status as children of God. 2:29 transitions into 3:1, If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. To be born of God is to be a child of God. Everything John says in this text is predicated on the reality of our divine parentage. John never got over the wonder of being a child of God, nor should we.
John describes some of the realities related to new birth. We were not born into this present age as competent adults, but a children who needed care and instruction. What we have been born into as God’s children needs interpretation. John provides some basic instructions related our status as God’s children
We have an amazing future (3:2)
Their status as God’s children was not readily apparent to the defectors because they did not recognize the uniqueness of God’s Son. The defectors, with their high sounding rhetoric about experiencing higher emanations of divine light and knowing God, had no confident future.
Unlike the defectors, the community was not only God’s children now, they had a future beyond what can be known now. Although we don’t know what we will be, we do know some things about it. We know our future is tied up in Christ, and we know that when he appears we will be like him because we will see him as he is. We know it’s there, we just don’t know all it is. We are like a child at Christmas shaking the boxes under the tree. We know the gifts are there, and we just don’t know all that they are.
The good news is what you struggle with now will not always be a struggle. That problem that seems unsolvable will not always be a problem. Knowing that we have a future is a powerful incentive for living now. We must let the power of the coming reality rule in our hearts now. This is what John does with this text.
We must live consistently with our divine parentage (2:28f; 3:3)
Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (3:3).
Don Carson illustrated this with the culture shock that happens when you leave your home culture and go live in a culture very different from your own. There are some things you can do to help mitigate the shock before you go—learn some of the language, study the customs, and learn to like the food. But with all your preparation the shock of it all cannot be avoided. The appearing of Christ will change everything!
We will meet Christ in one of two possible ways: confidence or shame (2:28). If we remain in him, we will meet him in confidence. The defectors, however, will be put to shame, a euphemism for the utter disgrace of God’s enemies on the day of judgment.
God’s children should behave a certain way. There are some things they should do—things that are consistent with their divine parentage. There are some things they should not do because they are contrary to their divine parentage.
John Chau was right. As Christians we cannot keep living the same sinful lives we had before we became Christians. The reason is we have been born of God (2:29; 3:9), which makes us God’s children. The fact that we can’t keep living the same old sinful lives as before points to the reality of new birth.
There is a fundamental difference between those who remain in the community and those who defect (3:4-10)
While the world may not recognize the children of God, the new birth fundamentally changes their nature. Those who practice righteousness do so because they have been born again (cf. 2:29). John sets up a series of contrasts between those who remain in the community and those who defected from the community.
The language John uses can be either comforting or disconcerting. When a believer reads 3:6 and 3:9b, I can see how a believer who is striving to walk with Jesus but struggles with a sense of self-condemnation could read this text and feel crushed, but that is a wrong reading of the text.
Some have read 3:6 and 3:9b as arguing sinless perfection, but John told us in chapter one, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves (1:8); If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar (1:10). It’s not likely John has changed his mind.
Others read this as John putting forward the ideal, something to aim for, and we should live in the tension of the Scripture saying, No one who abides in him sins and our knowing we do sin. This will make us try harder.
Still others soften the blow by reading the present tense verbs and saying this refers to habitual sin (as our ESV translators). To read the present tense keeps on sinning doesn’t help as much as one might think. People tend to read this verse in a self-justifying way or a self-condemning way. In a self-justifying way someone might say, I don’t continually make a habit of looking at porn, of committing adultery/fornication, of murder, etc., so I’m ok. The self-condemning person will read this and say, Good grief, I probably sin every day. What is habitual sin? One a day, week, month, year?
Whatever our take on this text, there is never any excuse for any sin!
We have to remember that John is writing to draw a distinction between those who remained in the community and those who defected. There is a particular sin John has in mind.
He sets this up by asserting, Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness (3:4). If I made a literal translation of the verse it would read, Everyone practicing the sin also practices the lawlessness; the sin is the lawlessness.
In this verse sin is singular and lawlessness is singular and both have the definite article. John seems to have a particular sin in mind and he calls this particular sin, lawlessness or rebellion. If this verse governs this paragraph then we have a contextual solution to an interpretative problem.
John is targeting the defectors who rejecting Christ have left the community. He has already told us that they deny that Jesus is the Christ (2:22).ii By rejecting the Son of God, they have rejected the one who appeared to take away the sins (3:5). He appeared to destroy the works of the devil (3:8b), the arch rebel.
This is what John is aiming at in this text. John is saying people who have been born of God don’t commit this sin. So John gives us a series of contrasts so that we might discern who is in the community and who has defected from the community (cf. 3:10a). Each contrast shows a family resemblance. We are either children of God or children of the devil.
The first contrast is in verse 6. A literal reading of the text is, No one who abides in him sins; No one who sins has either seen him or known him. The translators added the words keep on to try and capture the present, ongoing idea in the verb sinning.iii The family resemblance is there is no sin in him (3:5) and our relation to Jesus (3:6b seen and known him).
A second contrast is in 3:7,8. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous (3:7). Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil (3:8). The family resemblance is the one who does what is righteous is righteous as Jesus is righteous. 3:7-8 seem to be saying that whoever practices righteousness does so because of his relation to Jesus, and whoever practices sin does so because of his relation to the devil.
The third contrast is in 3:9-10. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot [keep on sinning] sin because he has been born of God (3:9). Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (3:10). John gives us the purpose of this contrast: By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil (3:10a). John again holds up the transforming reality of the new birth. Because of the new nature we are given, John says it is impossible for the believer to live in ongoing sin. God will not leave his children there.
To reject Christ is rebellion. It is to desire to be the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. It is to abandon any moorings for morals and ethics. It is to exalt self as the highest moral authority, the determiner of truth and good. It has no future but eternal shame.
This is how you know who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil. We are the beloved children of God, a people who by no virtue of our own have been born to a new life that changes everything.
As the beloved children of God, we must love one another (3:11-24)
We are not only the beloved children of God, we must love one another. The same gospel that birthed us into KOG also birthed us into a new community. When you are united with Christ, you are, also, united to his family. I find it interesting that John says that from the beginning the message we heard was that we should love one another (3:11). In my religious back ground, the church was more or less assumed but not something we talked about as inherent in the gospel message.
Yet you see the Bible is quite clear that loving the community is simply the environment into which we are born in the KOG. John here draws a contrast between the negative affections of the world, illustrated by Cain, and the love of the community with Jesus as the arch example.
The negative example of Cain (3:12-16)
The defectors did not love the community. They not only left it but they sought to do it positive harm through their deceiving message. Why did they leave the church and oppose the community, trying to disrupt it? They opposed the community for the same reason Cain murdered his brother. The church is opposed in the world simply because it does good and stands for righteousness.
The community should not be surprised that it is opposed in the world. Opposition, hatred, murder, these belong to the present age. Those who oppose the community show that they do not have eternal life.
The positive example of Jesus (3:16-18)
Our greatest threat is not that the world may oppose us. Our greatest threat is that we might not love one another. To not love the church is to have the germ of Cain in your soul. I’ve seen people who don’t love the church. I have seen them in an effort to have control or get their way or be the center of attention do harm to the body. John cautions us to not be like Cain who murdered his brother. And why? Simply out of envy and jealousy.
We have to examine our own hearts and slay the germ of Cain in our own souls. Cain is not our example, Jesus is. He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (3:16). If you lay down your life for this community, you will not have wasted it or died for a lost cause.
John’s example is surprising. It is not what we would have expected. In calling on us to lay our lives down for the brothers, John did not give us an example of a brother dying to protect the church. Rather, he said, if you see a brother in need get out your wallet. This is an example of a practical need that can easily be met, perhaps not so easily met in the 1st century as today in the western world.
Obviously, there should be no one in the community who lacks the basic necessities of life. We can, however, apply such a literal interpretation to this text that we think our obligation to the community ends at no one lacking basic necessities. John goes on, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth (3:18).
The needs of the community today are not less than material but they are much more. Absolutely, God’s people should be givers and their first obligation is the church. It is not loving your brother if you put the burden of financing the church on him. That should go without saying. In the community, however, believers need to love one another and invest in the lives of the church family to strengthen their faith. Older people need to feel a responsibility to help younger people. Our relationships need to reach across what our own needs to meet the needs of others.
Confidence before God (3:19-24)
By this must refer to what has gone before—Loving the community in deed and truth. Practical expressions of love are a powerful antidote to the condemning heart.
One of the problems with loving the community is people’s lives can be messy, they can be high maintenance and demanding, even down right annoying. What happens then is somewhere deep inside we begin to justify distancing ourselves from them and their problems. We write that brother off and feel justified in doing it. I have never had a hard conversation with a brother in trouble who did not blame me and the church for his trouble. Our hearts rare up and say, That’s it. I’m done. Your heart is not your guide. Your heart must be guided, and unless it is guided by the Word of God, you cannot trust it.
Bring that heart that has written off your brother to God. He is greater than your heart. He knows all your thoughts, the thoughts of your brother, and He cares from your troublesome brother as much as he cares for you. God can and will change your heart toward your brother. The justified hardness of your heart toward your brother is going to destroy your quiet, confident joyous assurance that your prayer has the ear of God.
When we obey his commands and do what pleases him, we know he hears us and we receive what we ask. And his command is that you believe in the name of Son Jesus Christ and love one another. Walk in community with Jesus and the church. This is how you know you are a Christian. You see, You can’t be a Christian and live the same old sinful life you did before you were a believer.
i Quoted from John Chau’s sermon to his church, accessed on 12/4/18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UE1S47JjkGw&feature=youtu.be.
iiThis sheds light on a later text that speaks of a sin that is not leading to death and a sin that leads to death (5:16).
iii The same is true in 3:9b. Keep on sinning.