Frequently, the same facial features, gestures, temperament and bearing are seen in members of a family. In a spiritual sense, family features are the clue as to whether someone is a child of the devil or a child of God; conduct and character "manifest" to whom a person belongs (3.10).
The Righteousness of God's Children (2.29)
In highlighting the characteristics of God's family, John regularly uses the phrase "born of him" or "born of God". The first reference is in 2.29 where the righteousness of God is seen as replicated in the lives of His children: "every one that doeth righteousness is born of him". The verb tense indicates that this is the trend of the person's life - they are addicted to doing righteousness. To borrow sentiments from the Sermon on the Mount, they are hungering and thirsting after righteousness even although it may mean being "persecuted for righteousness' sake" (Mt 5.6,10). Does the Father's righteousness feature in your character? We need to be clear about this issue for "the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6.9). Having spoken of those who are "born of him", John then proceeds to speak of their Father (3.1).
Their Father's Affection (3.1)
In chapter 3.1, John speaks not so much of God's love for the world (Jn 3.16), but of the Father's love for His children; the term "sons of God" in this epistle should always be translated "children of God". "What manner of love" - the word indicates that the love that has placed us in God's family is something that is alien to this world. Kenneth S Wuest translates it as "exotic"; it is different from anything that is common or recognisable; it is unique. If that phrase denotes the quality of the love, the word "bestowed" suggests the quantity of the love. However, being loved by the Father, being privileged to be His children, and exhibiting His family likeness, places us in bad grace with "the world". An unrighteous world cannot tolerate any righteous conduct that condemns it, and so there is a backlash, and God's children experience the disapproval that greeted their Lord when He was here: "therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not". That frosty attitude turns to positive hatred by v.13!
Two Manifestations of the Son (vv.2-6)
"He shall be manifested" (v.2, RV). "He was manifested" (v.5). Our present status is perfectly understood: "now are we the sons of God". But the complete details of our future state are "not yet made manifest" (v.2, RV). We are still in the dark about some issues, but one thing is clear, when He is manifested to His own as in 2.28, "we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is".
Likeness to Christ in that coming day will be moral conformity to Him; how blessed! In this context "he is pure" (v.3), "in him is no sin" (v.5), and we shall be like Him with every trace of imperfection gone. In the context of Philippians 3, we will resemble Him physically; He "shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (v.21). The whole experience is the culmination of God's great eternal purpose that we "be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren" (Rom 8.29). Morally and physically we shall be like Him! "We shall…bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Cor 15.49). What a glorious day that will be!
Thus we have hope in Him (v.3), and the prospect of being like Him when He appears should make us enthusiasts for being more like Him here and now. "He is pure", intrinsically so, untainted, uncontaminated. During "the days of his flesh" the contagion of sin made no inroads into His life. We have never been inherently pure, nor will we ever attain the absolute purity that characterises Him, but we do have a duty to purify ourselves. God has facilitated this by giving us His Spirit and His Word. "Keep thyself pure" (1 Tim 5.22); "Be thou an example…in purity" (1 Tim 4.12). May God enable us all to "cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor 7.1).
Neglecting purity leaves one's profession of faith in question, for John now deals with the theme of sin, and states plainly that God's children do not continually sin. It should be stressed that in this context John is speaking of the consistent practice of sin; the verb tense that he employs demonstrates this, so that Darby's translation and others speak about practising sin or the practice of sin. By contrast, the verb tense in 2.1 in the phrase, "if any man sin", indicates acts of sin and not habitual sinning.
In introducing this subject, John gives a definition of sin; "sin is lawlessness" (v.4, RV). Sin is the product of a spirit of insubordination. It is wilful rebellion, and if that attitude is entrenched it reveals the absence of the divine nature. Believers are those who have experienced the removal of their sins (v.5). One of the reasons for which the Saviour was "manifested" was to "take away our sins". He was perfectly equipped to undertake that task for "in him is no sin". His sinless life could never have saved us, but it was a necessary prerequisite for His atoning death. Had He been flawed, His sacrifice would have been valueless. Thus those who are the beneficiaries of that sacrifice, and who abide in Him, demonstrate it by the absence of routine sinning; those for whom sinning is normal have never "seen him" or "known him" in a saving sense (v.6).
Thwarting the Devil (vv.7-12)
John's teaching pivots on v.10. There he gives two features of God's children - righteousness and love. Righteousness is the theme leading up to that point in the teaching, and then the emphasis shifts to love. Any suggestion that allows laxity in behaviour is a satanic deception (v.7). The truth is, that judicial righteousness, justification, is demonstrated by "doing righteousness", with the stress again on that being a reflection of the Father's character - "he is righteous". Righteous conduct is behaviour in keeping with the family ethos.
By contrast, committing sin in the habitual sense shows that the perpetrator is "of the devil" (v.8). Satan has been consistently wicked "from the beginning", and his family members display the same propensity to evil. His ambition was to entrap the whole of humanity in that culture of iniquity, but "the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil". It is true that the work of the cross has dealt the death blow to the devil (Heb 2.14-15) and has thwarted every wicked intention that he had, but the context here seems to be that the sacrifice of Christ has destroyed his work in fettering people to a perpetually evil life-style. Wonderfully, there are now people in the world who are passionate about righteousness rather than sin; they are no longer "the children of the devil". For them, the works of the devil have been destroyed, that is, they have been unloosed from his baneful influence and are now "the children of God". Once more, stress is laid on the fact that being born of God means that as His child there is no enslavement to sin; His children do not "commit sin" in that steady fashion (v.9). In fact, they "cannot sin" in that way and for this reason - "his seed remaineth in them". A divine life-principle has been imparted, empowering them to do right and to abhor sin. Holy living is not a matter of will-power and self-effort. It is facilitated by the fact that they possess "the divine nature" (2 Pet 1.4).
Having spoken of doing righteousness, John now deals with family affection, another factor enjoined upon believers "from the beginning" (v.11). Cain's conduct was the antithesis of this ideal for the children of God: "Not as Cain". It is sad that the first two brothers were so diverse. Cain was "of that wicked one" and hence his hatred of all that was righteous and holy in Abel. "His works were evil" (RV), including his offering an inadequate sacrifice that had no acceptance with God (Gen 4.5). That settled state of rebellion exposed by Abel's consistent righteousness is cited as the reason for his furious murderous outburst. John will proceed to show that a professing believer displaying the same animosity towards "his brother" demonstrates that he is of Cain's ilk, a child of the devil and devoid of eternal life (v.15). The teaching is challenging. Perhaps that bitter, critical, aggressive, abusive assembly member is not a believer at all; maybe, like Cain, he is "of that wicked one", an infiltrator who knows nothing of the saving grace of God!
To be continued.