In a world that desperately needs the love of a father, we have some wonderfully good news in 1 John 3:1-6. Listen for God’s word to you…
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
There are three important things that John tells us here about living in God’s family. First, we have a relationship of love with the Father.
What sort of love is this? John uses the Greek word ποταπος when he says: “See what sort of love the Father has given us!” Ποταπος literally means “of what country”. Greeks used this word to express surprise when they encountered something foreign. The disciples used this word in Matthew 8:27 when Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee and they asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” Jesus was in a different category altogether from anything or anyone that the disciples had come across before. The same is true of the Father’s love for us: it is in an entirely different category from any other love.
God reveals his amazing love for us by calling us his children. Now, you may wonder: why is this so amazing? Is not everyone created by God and therefore his child? The answer from the Bible is both yes and no. William Barclay explains our situation in this way:
It is by the gift of God that a man becomes a child of God. By nature a man is the creature of God, but it is by grace that he becomes the child of God. There are two English words which are closely connected but whose meanings are widely different, paternity and fatherhood. Paternity describes a relationship in which a man is responsible for the physical existence of a child; fatherhood describes an intimate, loving, relationship. In the sense of paternity all men are children of God; but in the sense of fatherhood men are children of God only when he makes his gracious approach to them and they respond.
The Apostle Paul calls this gracious approach on God’s part “adoption”. In Romans 8:15-17 he writes,
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…
Naturally, the question arises: if Jesus-followers are children of God why does the rest of the world not recognize this truth? The answer is: because we are receiving the same treatment Jesus received. The world did not recognize Jesus as the Son of God; therefore, the world will not recognize us for who we really are either.
This week I took Becky and Josh to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. I got my Massachusetts driver’s license and so did Becky, but the RMV would not give Josh a license. The problem was with the documents I brought to prove that Josh is a resident at 9 Indian Hill Road, Barnstable. I brought the documents that the RMV web site told me to bring, but according to the person in charge at RMV this week, the documents I brought were not good enough!
We are going to try again in the near future. But the incident got me thinking: “What would you present as proof that you are part of God’s family?”
I’ve got good news for you. It doesn’t matter whether anyone else would recognize the proof you present, because God has already put the proof in your heart. He has given you his Holy Spirit that causes you to cry out to him, “Abba Father!” That’s the proof and it’s enough.
God has adopted us as his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, and he is not ever going to go back on that decision. At present, the world may not recognize to whom we belong. However, we know, and we can relax in our heavenly Father’s love.
If you want to be sure you are not simply God’s creature, but also God’s child, you can be sure of that if you will simply receive God’s Holy Spirit into your life.
The second major thing John tells us in this passage is that God has given us a hope that purifies.
What is that hope? John tells us that we are already the children of God; it is a present fact. However, what we will be in the future has not yet been revealed. There is a “now but not yet” aspect to the Christian life. We have many blessings from God in the present, but God has so much more in store for us.
Despite not knowing much about our future state, what the resurrection life will be like, John is sure of two things. First, when Jesus appears we will be like him.
John is most likely thinking all the way back to Genesis 1:27….
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
However, in between where we are now and Genesis chapter one there is Genesis chapter three: the story of the fall of humankind from God’s original, intended perfection. What John is telling us is that in Jesus we will recover that original perfection, the image of God.
The first point John makes here relates to the second. That is: when Jesus appears, we shall see him as he is.
There was a man who had gone blind as a young adult. Subsequently, the man married and had children. His family could see him, but he had never seen them. Then, through the miracle of medicine, the man was able to have an operation and he regained his eyesight. What a wonderful moment that must have been, after the operation, to open his eyes and see his wife and children for the first time! Perhaps, in a way, our vision of Jesus in the resurrection life will be like that.
One thing is certain: something about eye contact changes us. People who spend a lifetime looking at each other begin to look like each other. Perhaps that is because we unconsciously copy the facial expressions of those we love until that experience actually reshapes the muscles in our faces. John tells us that something of the same thing is going to happen through the long journey of the Christian life that Paul calls sanctification.
The story is told of a poor man who often went into a cathedral to pray. He would pray, kneeling before the crucifix. His lips never moved. It appeared that he never said a single word. An observer asked the man about his prayer practice. The poor man described it by pointing to Jesus on the cross and saying: “I look at him; and he looks at me.”
I think what John is telling us is that the person who looks long enough at Jesus will become like him. Furthermore, when we become completely like Jesus we will really see him as he is for the first time.
This leads to the final major point that John makes about living in God’s family. As we spend our lives gazing at Jesus, there will be a reflection of the Father in our lifestyle. If we have the hope that we will one day see Jesus face to face, and that in that day we will become completely like him, then we will want to get busy on that journey of becoming like him here and now.
It is like this…. If you were going to meet a colleague in some other country at some time in the not too distant future, then you would want to learn as much of that colleague’s language as possible, so that when the two of you did meet, you could converse more freely.
To use another illustration, imagine that one day you read about your dream job in the classified ads of the newspaper. What would you do then? You would call up the company and make an appointment for an interview. Then, you would learn everything you possibly could about that company, and gear everything in your resume toward what that company was looking for in an employee. You would do this so that when the day of the interview arrived, you would make the best impression possible.
In the same way, John tells us that one day we are going to meet Jesus. Now Jesus is perfectly pure, holy, set apart. If we want to properly prepare for that meeting, we will start working now at making ourselves pure by the power of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has given to us.
How do we do that? In answer to that question, John tells us something that at first sight seems very troublesome: “No one who lives in him [that is in Jesus] keeps on sinning.”
What does John mean? If we share in the life of Jesus, if we live in him and Jesus lives in us, then we will live changed lives. John recognizes that none of us will be completely free of sin until that day that we stand before Jesus and see him as he is, for in that day we will be made like him. John has already told us at the end of chapter one and the beginning of chapter two what to do when sin crops up in our lives: confess it and receive forgiveness through Jesus. What John is talking about here is that the Christian does not live in sin as a habit of life.
N. T. Wright describes this daily process of transformation in this way:
We should be doing our best to avoid all kinds of sin, all the time, though we shall surely fail; but the failures must take place within a settled habit of life in which sin is no longer setting the tone. We are playing a different piece of music now, and even if our fingers slip sometimes and play some wrong notes, notes that belong to the music we used to play, that doesn’t mean we are going back to play that old music for real once more.
Therefore, we are not talking about achieving an unrealistic standard of total perfection in our day-to-day living. However, how do we start playing more of the right notes from the score Jesus wants us to play and fewer of the wrong notes that belong to our old sinful lifestyle? The secret is to abide in Jesus. “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning.”
This statement takes us back to the language of Jesus in the Gospel of John, chapter fifteen, where Jesus says:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower… Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing…. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you… As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
We abide in Jesus by allowing his word to abide in us, by filling our minds and hearts with his words. We abide in Jesus by talking to him in prayer: “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” We abide in Jesus by abiding in his love, by receiving that love, soaking ourselves in it, and relishing it.
If we attempt merely to keep sin at bay by our own power, to try to hold something out by brute strength, we will surely fail. Rather, what we need to do is let the larger life of Jesus seep into us day by day.
Allow me to return to the tea-bag illustration I used a few weeks ago… When you put a tea bag in hot water, slowly the flavor and color of that tea disperses throughout that cup or mug of water. Just so, we need to let the flavor and color of the life of Jesus steep in us. If we do that, then in time there will be no more room for our old way of life, for mere, bland, tasteless, hot water.
As we abide in Jesus, not only will the room for sin gradually decrease in our lives, but we will also be able to handle any stress that hits us from the outside.
Allow me to close with a little story that illustrates this so well. When I tell people I am from California, non-Californians often reply: “I could never live there. I would be afraid of the earthquakes.” One of my favorite preachers who served for many years in Berkeley California, Earl Palmer, gives an excellent response to this fear. He writes…
I want to tell you something that may surprise you. If you’re making a trip to San Francisco and you want the safest place to go, you go to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. That will withstand probably 9.0 on the Richter Scale. It’s a magnificent structure. It will not fall, for two reasons. One, it’s flexible. That sway. But I’ll tell you another reason it stands: That bridge is a marvel of cantilever and suspension in construction.
Every bit of concrete, and all the macadam and that pavement, and every bit of steel in that entire bridge—all of it relates one piece to another. Every piece of metal in that bridge finally relates to two giant cables, that finally come up to two great piers that go down into bedrock, and two anchors out on each side. That’s the genius of a suspension bridge—every single piece of metal, every single piece of concrete, is preoccupied with its foundation. And it’s satisfied with the foundation. You don’t see big, huge cables going from the top of the bridge over to the Trans-America Tower, or over to redwood trees over in Marin County; you don’t have that. They decide to trust the pure living rock that those great piers go into.
When we abide in Jesus and his words abide in us, when we allow our roots to go down deep into the soil of his marvelous love, then we are actually anchored in the Rock, and all the stress, all the sin, and even Satan himself cannot shake us loose.
 Earl Palmer, “The Foolish and the Wise,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 54.