Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 14, 2024

1 John 3:1-7 Commentary

Several years ago a colleague and I had a conversation about God’s adoption of God’s children. My colleague noted that human adoption is often a sort of mixed blessing. Among other things, it raises questions of identity. Is an adopted person the child of her birth parents or adopted parents? My colleague’s identity was clouded as well by the cross-cultural nature of her adoption.

In this morning’s text the apostle alludes several times to divine adoption. He twice (1, 2) refers to his readers as “children [tekna]* of God.” In verse 7 John also speaks of the people to whom he writes as “little children” [teknia].” What’s more, just beyond this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s bounds, John both speaks of his readers as both “born of [gegennetai] God” (2:29) and “children [tekna] of God” (3:10).

“That,” adds John in verse 1a, “is what we are [esmen].” The Message paraphrases this assertion as children of God being “who we really are.” The apostle implies that Jesus’ modern followers’ primary identity is not as Americans or Canadians, progressives or conservatives, Blue Jays or Sox’s fans, but as children of God.

Yet “this identity,” as the New Testament scholar Janette H. Ok writes, “is not a mere title but a relationship and a vocation spoken into existence by God.” John at least implies that this relationship and vocation is no human being’s choice. No person ever unprompted asked God to adopt them. God has adopted Jesus’ friends to be God’s sons and daughters out of the “great love [agapen]” that God has “lavished [dedoken]” (1) on us.

This, of course, echoes the gospel of John’s prologue. In John 1:12-13, after all, John sings, “To all who received [Jesus Christ], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children not born of human descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

My siblings and I bore some physical resemblance to our parents. But among the generally unstated expectations in my family was that we should also act in ways that resembled my parents. We were expected to bear a family resemblance in the ways we acted, spoke and even thought.

Of course, however, my siblings and I didn’t always act like Wally and Marianne’s sons and daughter. People periodically had a hard time identifying the family resemblance. Especially as we were growing up, my sister, brother and I sometimes acted more like brats than Bratts.

1 John 3 at least implies that God’s adopted children don’t always bear our adopted family’s resemblance either. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson communicates that in a way that reminds me of the story a Jewish scholar told about a law that Jerusalem bus companies put in place dictating that no one could put their feet on their buses’ seats. She asked, “Why did they need to make that rule?” The scholar’s answer: “Because someone had put their feet on those seats.”

“Why,” John’s readers might ask in a similar vein, “did the apostle insist that ‘everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself’?” (3). Because, we might infer, some of the people to whom the apostle wrote were not, in fact, acting like God’s adopted children by purifying themselves.

Preachers might let the Spirit guide us to help our hearers view 1 John 3 through that lens. “Everyone who sins [poion ten hamartian],” writes the apostle in verse 4, “breaks [poiei] the law [anomian].” He literally says that everyone who is committing sin is also committing lawlessness. The Message paraphrases this as, “All who indulge in a sinful life are dangerously lawless.”

“No one,” continues John in verse 6, “who lives [menon] in [Christ] keeps on sinning [hamartanei]. No one who continues to sin [hemartanon] has either seen [heoraken] or known [egnoken] him.” Scholars struggle to understand precisely what the apostle means here. After all, even God’s most Christlike adopted children continue to sin against God and our neighbor.

So preachers might “land” somewhere near here: the apostle is signaling a fundamental clash between the status as God’s adopted sons and daughters and a pattern of intentional ongoing sin. John’s at least reminding God’s children that we don’t deliberately go on sinning against God and our neighbor as though God’s adoption of us has no impact on our daily lives. In fact, Christians’ persistent sin belies Christians’ claims of having known Christ in any meaningful way.

“Do not let anyone lead you astray [planato],” John basically ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in verse 7. “He who does right is righteous [poion ten dikaiosynen], just as [Christ] is righteous [dikaios]. As The Message paraphrases this verse, “Don’t let anyone divert you from the truth. It’s the person who acts right who is right, just as we see it lived out in our righteous Messiah.”

Here the apostle spells out his call to the divine family resemblance quite explicitly. Jesus Christ, our adopted big Brother, was perfectly righteous. He perfectly loved both God and his neighbor. God longs for us to act just like our elder Brother by faithfully loving both God and our neighbor.

Since John describes the family resemblance of God’s adopted children in largely negative terms, preachers might spend some time exploring that resemblance’s more positive characteristics. Jesus is, says the apostle in verse 3, “pure [hagnos].” So his adopted siblings let the Spirit help us to transform our whole selves more and more into his image. Jesus’ life is, after all, a perfect example for our own.

Ok (ibid) notes that the fact that John feels the need to repeat his assertion of our identity (“and that is what we are” and “now we are children of God”) suggests that the people to whom he wrote were struggling to recognize their identity as God’s adopted children. That may be because the voices of “the world” (3) are both so loud and demanding.

Preachers who listen for the Spirit’s promptings might spend some time exploring Christians’ various competing identities and their attractiveness. Preachers might also spend some time talking about how those competing identities threaten to diminish our awareness of our identity as God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters. We might even talk about how our hearers can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, cultivate our identity as God’s children.

Ok (ibid) suggests that we might do that by, among other things, remembering that while God has adopted us as God’s children, “what we will be [ti esometha] has not yet been made known [oupo ephanerothe]” (2b). By God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus’ followers now enjoy intimacy with and know God our Father. Someday, however, God’s adopted sons and daughters will become fully “like him [homoioi autou]” and “see him [opsometha] as he is [kathos estin]” (2d).

This gives Christians’ adoption by God an eschatological perspective. The Scriptures don’t, candidly, offer Jesus’ friends much concrete information about the new earth and heaven. But this we know beyond the shadow of a doubt: in the new creation we will, by God’s amazing grace, see God “as he is” (2b). Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see him face to face.”

Even as Jesus’ adopted siblings seek to cultivate Christlikeness as we await that great and glorious day, John invites us to a kind of holy patience with both God and ourselves. God has already granted God’s adopted children the status of and increasing resemblance to God’s family of grace. But we always remember that we remain a work of the Spirit in progress.

This also has profound implications for Christians’ views of our adopted siblings in Christ. It can be tempting to become impatient with other Christians’ lawlessness. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson summons Jesus’ friends to more cruciform attitude.

John implies that we can remain patient with our brothers and sisters in Christ because we know God’s not yet finished working on them any more than God is done finished working on us. Even our most flawed fellow Christians share our God-given identity. They are no less than we are God’s dearly beloved children.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Abraham Kuyper was among the 21st century’s most influential theologians. Yet he struggled with his inclination to “keep on sinning” (6). In his book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat, James Bratt describes notes that “Kuyper was a great man, but not a nice one.

“He was immensely talented, energetic and driven to great exploits … He was an ambitious person who sought power, and often felt uneasy over that quest. He could be congenial and polemical, sometimes to the same person in fairly quick succession … He loved having collaborators and disciples but drove them away when they stepped up as equals. In public he often showed a better understanding of God than of himself [italics added].”


Preaching Connections: , ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup