Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2024

1 John 3:16-24 Commentary

Reading this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson always seems to be a bit like trying to drink from a firehose. So many theological themes and images gush out of it that we may feel like we can swallow only a fraction of 1 John 3:16-24’s life-affirming truths.

My colleagues Scott Hoezee and Stan Mast offer a wealth of fine insights into this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s theological and ethical goldmine. But preachers may find the Spirit drawing our attention to one of 1 John 3:16-24’s truths to which even such thoughtful commentators pay less attention.

In the course of just three verses John refers three times to our “hearts.” “This, then,” writes the apostle, “is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts [kardian hemon]* at rest in his presence (19) whenever our hearts [hemon he kardia] condemn us (20) … Dear friends, if our hearts [kardia hemon] do not condemn us, we have confidence before God” (21).

Central to these phrases is some form of kardia (“heart”). Its meaning may seem hopelessly obvious to preachers. Yet we may want to spend at least some time exploring to what that Greek term refers. After all, the “heart” about John speaks here is not the human organ that pumps and circulates blood. While the Greek term kardia is notoriously difficult to interpret, it may be enough to say that it’s that essential part of people that motivates and compels us to act, talk and think in certain ways. So the “hearty” part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson brings to mind a passage from Augustine’s Confessions in which he asserts that since God has made us for himself, our “hearts” are “restless” until they rest in God.

In 1 John 3 the apostle may, however, have something even more specific in mind when he talks about our hearts. He’s perhaps referring to something like human beings’ consciences. In fact, healthy consciences can serve as drivers of human actions. Unhealthy consciences may, by contrast, inhibit healthy actions.

In verse 19 John insists that Jesus’ friends can “set our hearts at rest [peisomen ten kardian hemon] in his presence [emprosthen autou] whenever our hearts condemn [kataginoske] us.” While physical heart trouble can be physically lethal, the kind of heart trouble about which John talks can be spiritually lethal. The Message paraphrases the apostle as talking in verse 20a about “debilitating self-criticism.” Our hearts’ condemnation of us may impede our ability to fully love God and our neighbor.

In verse 19b John talks about ways to “shut down” (The Message) such impairment. He refers there to setting “our hearts at rest in” God’s presence. We sometimes talk about an ideal “resting heart rate.” Experts suggest that the normal resting heart rate for people between the ages of 15 and 60 is 60-100 beats a minute. It’s slightly higher for people ages 60 and up.

But in verse 19 the apostle isn’t talking about the frequency of heartbeats when hearts are at rest. He’s, instead, talking about a kind of spiritual restfulness. The apostle is referring to a kind of humble but firm trust in God’s gracious care and presence. Quite simply, even when Jesus’ friends have things about which we feel guilty – sometimes because we are guilty — our hearts can be at rest.

Why? Because “God is,” according to verse 20b, “greater [meizon] than our hearts, and he knows [ginoske] everything.” The grammar here is interesting. After all, the Greek root of kataginoske (“condemnation”) is ginoske that we translate as “know.” So it’s as if the apostle says while we know about our guilt, God knows not just about our guilt, but also “everything [panta].”

We might wish that John explained just what he meant by verse 20’s reference to God’s omniscience. But preachers might say at least this about it: God doesn’t just know what and when we do wrong. God also knows about the longing the Spirit plants within us to love God and our neighbor. The God who created us in God’s image and unconditionally loves us beyond words knows us better than we know ourselves.

As a result, the apostle continues in verse 21, God’s dearly beloved people’s hearts don’t need to condemn us. Our guilt and guilty consciences don’t need to keep us from lovingly serving God and our neighbor. By the grace of God and work of the Holy Spirit, we can “have confidence [parresian] before God [pros ton Theon].” Christians whose hearts are at rest can with open hands receive from God “anything we ask [ho ean aitomen]” (22).

But how can guilty Christians cultivate such restful hearts and confident trust? John strongly implies that the Spirit can use our obedience to strengthen our confidence in God’s gracious  goodness. After all, verse 19’s “This then [en toutou]” seems to point back to what precedes it.

So it’s as if John rhetorically asks how Jesus’ friends can know that “we belong to the truth [ek tes aletheias esmen].” By “laying down [theinai] our lives [tas psychas] for our brothers [ton adelphon]” (16b). In the economy of God’s amazing grace, faithful obedient responses to God’s grace help confirm our sense of the peace God gives us with God. As Jesus’ friends live self-sacrificially for God and our neighbor, the Spirit helps to calm our hearts.

How can Jesus’ followers know that we “belong to the truth”? John implies that happens when, among other things, we share our “material possessions [ton bion tou kosmou]” with our “brother in need [adelphon autou chreian echonta]” (17). In God’s economy of grace, our generosity with our neighbors who are needy confirms in us the peace with which God graces us.

How can Christians know that we “belong to the truth”? We infer from the apostle that this happens as we “love [agapomen] not with words [logo] or tongue [glosse] but with actions [ergo] and in truth [aletheia]” (19a). The Spirit settles our hearts and soothes our consciences as we don’t just talk about love, but also actually practice it.

This link may even, in fact, help explain what may seem like verse 22’s mysterious assertion. In verse 21 the apostle again alludes to Christians’ peace of mind. He then goes on to insist that “we have confidence before God and receive [lambanomen] from him anything we ask because [hoti] we obey [teroumen] his commands [entolas autou] and do [poioumen] what pleases [aresta] him.”

This may sound like John is suggesting that God’s gifts to God’s people are transactional. It might be tempting to interpret him to mean that when we obey God, God gives us that for which we ask. But Christians profess that all of God’s gifts to us are of grace. We don’t deserve them.

So what might John be saying by asserting that God gives us that for which we ask because we obey God’s commands? Perhaps this: Jesus’ friends’ obedience that puts our hearts at rest also puts us in a place where we can both acknowledge and gratefully receive God’s generosity. Because God has graciously used our obedience to help calm our hearts, we need not be unsettled or anxious, but deliberately open ourselves to gladly and gratefully receiving God’s “yes’s” to our prayers.

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


In his book, Wonder Boy: Barry Minkow, the Kid Who Swindled Wall Street (Scribner, 1990), Daniel Akst writes about hearts that perversely reject any kind of condemnation: “A psychopath [aka sociopath] is someone who can act without regard to conscience, victimizing people again and again without remorse. Psychopaths are charming, intelligent, and make superb liars. They are unreliable and tend not to learn from experience. Amoral, they are often criminals … most use people as disposable objects, and the true psychopath is probably incapable of love … the psychopath usually wears a convincing mask of sanity.

“Dr. Hervey Clackley described the psychopath as a sad and dangerous creature, ‘a subtly constructed reflex machine which can mimic the human personality perfectly,’ yet lacks the deepest and most important characteristics of humanity. ‘Most psychopaths are men, and many were hyperactive children who felt helpless and inferior. Often they lacked a parent or strong parental discipline. In later life they frequently turn to alcohol or drugs, are wildly impulsive, boastful, irritable, and aggressive to the point of belligerence.

‘Yet psychopaths are superficially winning and – sometimes — strangely kind. They routinely bounce checks, default on checks and break the law. They have terrible driving records. Perspective and guilt aren’t very helpful to them. They can easily justify hurting others, and they welcome risk. They also excel at manipulating people … Psychopaths are promiscuous and tend to reproduce themselves. There is evidence that their proportion in society is growing’.”


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