The Odd Pericope
While context is an issue for any passage, this particular lectionary text is oddly truncated on both ends from the surrounding context. Most commentators regard 3:1-3 as a continuation of the thoughts of 2:28-29. Even more jarring is ending the text at v 7 rather than at v 6 or continuing through v 10. While stopping short of vv 8-10 may save the preacher additional exegetical challenges, as well as the discomfort of telling sinners they are “children of the devil” (v. 10; see also, v. 8), it also may avoid a needed reality-check regarding the seriousness of sin. Nonetheless, 3:1-7 is the text before us, so on this text we shall focus.
God’s Lavish Gift
The text opens with a majestic fanfare: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (2011 NIV throughout unless otherwise noted). “See” is the same word used in John 1:29 when John the Baptist points to Jesus and exclaims, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Often in Johannine writings, this strong exhortation highlights a “revelatory declaration with prophet insight.” God has done something extraordinary, and we are invited to pay attention and respond accordingly!
While the Johannine writer rarely uses the word “grace,” and not at all in 1 John, this is a declaration of pure grace. The NIV’s translation of the verb (“has lavished”) expresses the magnitude of God’s gift; the NRSV and CEB (“has given”) emphasize the sheer grace – given, not earned – of God’s gift.
The enormity of God’s lavish love is accentuated by the adjective “great.” Mark 13:1 uses this adjective (patopas) in reference to both the stones and the buildings of the Temple complex: “What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” God’s love is “massive,” “magnificent,” “enormous”; in fact, superlatives inadequately capture the height and depth and breadth of God’s love which makes us children of God.
This opening verse actualizes the promise of John 1:12, “. . . to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” For we are not simply “called” children of God; we are children of God!
However, our intimacy with God can (should) lead to a lack of recognition by those who do not know God: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (v 1c). The implication throughout this passage, indeed throughout the epistle, is that “children of God” must take on the character and nature of their “Father” and of the Son, Jesus Christ. If the world did not recognize God in Jesus (see John 1:10), then God’s children should not be surprised that the world does not recognize God in us. In fact, we ought to be surprised – and discomforted – if the world sees and knows us as some of their own!
John again affirms what we do know – “we are children of God” (v 2a). But he also says something about what we don’t know: “what we will be has not yet been made known” (v 2b). As in 2:28, John connects hope for the future with encouragement for the present. As Paul in 1 Cor. 13:12, John is cautious in his claims regarding future realities for the children of God. Christ’s return is unambiguously affirmed; the final state of God’s children is yet unknown. Nonetheless, the future is filled with hope and promise: “…when Christ appears, we shall be like him…” (v. 2b).
The message of hope and promise is important. Going unrecognized – if not ignored or persecuted – in the world can be difficult. We face discouragement and weariness (or worse) at every turn. However, in the words of countless infomercials, “But wait, there’s more!” The immense gift we’ve received in becoming children of God is only a portion of our full inheritance. We don’t know (and probably shouldn’t try to say too much about) all that awaits us when we “see him [Christ] as he is” (v. 2c). Yet, we affirm that Christ will come again and that eternal life will continue, though in ways beyond anything we experience here and now.
No New Testament writer allows our hope for the future to be severed from daily life, and John is no exception. Thus, John turns attention to the practical implications emerging from our standing as children of God and our eschatological hope.
Our life in Christ is woefully incomplete if relegated to mere forgiveness of sin and a heavenly home in the sweet by-and-by. The main thrust of this text is a call to live presently as genuine children of God; that is, as those who reflect and resemble God the Father and the Son, Jesus Christ. The parallel between verses 3 and 7 highlights this emphasis:
All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (v 3, emphasis added) The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. (v 4b, emphasis added)
Positively, children of God “must live as Jesus did” (2:6), pure and righteous. Negatively, children of God do not continue to sin (v. 6).
Most commentators acknowledge the difficulty of translating and interpreting the overall meaning of vv 4-6. The “lawlessness” (anomia) of v 4 seems drawn from apocalyptic tradition, thus offering some perspective. As used in Matthew 7:22-23 and 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7, “lawlessness” indicates a level of opposition to God akin to the devil’s opposition to God (vv 8-10). Or, as Williamson explains,
This lawlessness of spirit is part of an eschatological opposition to God and cannot be reconciled with a confident waiting for his return. One cannot be eager for the return of the Lord and at the same time in rebellion against him.
In his exposition of v 6, John Wesley emphasized the present, ongoing aspect of living or abiding in Christ:
Whosoever abideth in communion with him, by loving faith, sinneth not – While he so abideth. Whosoever sinneth certainly seeth him not – The loving eye of his soul is not then fixed upon God; neither doth he then experimentally [experientially] know him – Whatever he did in time past.
The NIV (2011) translation of v 6 corresponds with John Wesley’s interpretation while adding the idea that for the child of God sinning is no longer habitual: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.”
Each local context is different, so each preacher must determine the focus if this text is used. However, the most important point to be made may be the victory of Christ over sin (v 5): Christ “appeared so that he might take away our sins.” The point is made even more strongly in v. 8: “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”
Encouraging children of God to wait with eager hope for what we will be while living as Jesus lived (pure & righteous) is good and necessary. However, in most of our contexts, we likely need to guard against further encouragement of a do-it-yourself Christianity which makes it more about our efforts to live like Christ than about the victory of Christ over sin. An exhortation to “just stop sinning” is hardly a word of encouragement for those who feel powerless and defeated by sin. The reality proclaimed by this text (and its context) is that we are children of God and Jesus’ victory over sin ensures our victory over sin as we live in Christ!
 Williamson, Rick, 1, 2, & 3 John, (Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2010), 109.
 Johannine use of the terms “life” and “eternal life” is nearly always interchangeable. “Eternal life” entails a quality of life which begins in the here and now rather than merely “life after death.” “Eternal life” begins when one is “born of Spirit” (see John 3) and extends beyond the grave.
 Williamson, 114