Studies in I John, III Walking in Likeness, Text: 2:28-3:24, Title: All in the Family


From 1971-1983 a successful situation comedy called “All in the Family” aired on TV. The lead character was Archie Bunker, a working-class family man who held bigoted, conservative views of the world. His viewpoints clashed with nearly everyone. In the lingo of 2011 we would call his family dis-functional. Recently someone gave me a DVD set of those shows because they were so politically incorrect that they were hesitant about their children seeing them, and rightly so. The shows were funny and thus their popularity, but they were also sad in conveying the turmoil that exists in so many families and the prejudices that still persist. In our day the dissolution of the family is so prevalent that Christian organizations attempt to address it, as for example, “Focus on the Family” with Dr. James Dobson. The problem the Apostle is addressing in this portion of his letter is that the same issues exist in our spiritual family, the church, the family of God. All the conflicts, misunderstandings, prejudices, and stresses that are found in our families at home are also present in our churches. Usually a family therapist will recognize that the remedy for the root cause is a change in the family dynamics. That is exactly what John is doing for the church. He is defining our roles and relationships so that we live up to the ideals of the family of God. He does this by reminding us of the rules of the family, the rift in the family and the reassurance for the family of God.

I The Rules of the Family

A Regeneration

The first rule of the family is simple. You must be brought into it. The Bible speaks of this under two images, birth and adoption. In either case we need to recognize as Brad Henry, recent governor of Oklahoma wrote, “Families are the compass that guide us. They are the inspiration to reach great heights, and our comfort when we occasionally falter." To our families we recognize we have a debt, and to our families we look for guidance. And so we read in 2:28 and 29,  And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

B Rejection

The second rule of the family is rejection. If our heavenly Father and our family are rejected it should not surprise us that we are rejected. This should make us rejoice even more in our acceptance in the family and have the same goals and aspirations. Thus John  writes in 3:1-3  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 he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. One of the saddest things we see in the family of God is children  who  have been nurtured and taught, loved and cared for ending up rejecting the Christian hope. If the training is good, this should not happen but in God’s providence, sadly it does, and it is a mystery to us. Nevertheless we strive to create a family where acceptance and love are the first order. Let the world reject us if our family loves us.

C Righteousness

The third rule according to John is the rule of righteousness. Let us remember both the initial manifestation of Christ and his return are spoken of in terms of the effect his work had on sin: in his first coming he took away sin; in his return  He purifies us. Clearly, the attention is focused not on our efforts to become pure or to attain a state of sinlessness, but on what has been done for us to purify us, to transfer us to the realm where righteousness, and not sin, holds sway. Thus we read in verses 4-10, 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. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. This passage has often been misunderstood by perfectionists who have supposed that it is possible for a  Christian to live without sinning. The folly of that is apparent right in John’s letter where he says in chapter 1:8 and 10, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us...If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. In reality, John is simply distinguishing between the believers and the unbelievers. The reason for his seemingly hyperbolic language is that he eagerly anticipates the blessings of the future age, now being realized through the ministry of Jesus among his followers. This passage delineates the persistent character of those that truly follow Jesus, but not their perfection. They live in the light acknowledging God and His Word, and are fully aware of the responsibility incumbent upon them as God’s children.

II The Rift of the Family

The Apostle continues in the same vein as he speaks of rifts in the visible family. John had to deal with those in the church who were not truly converted. The rifts occur because of the fact that the character of the parties is so different. Thus John tells us in verses 11 and 16-18 that we must love our brothers because anything else is out of character,  We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers...This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This loving relationship is far from what we find in the world which is characterized by hatred. John speaks of this in verses 12-15, Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. The Elder uses the story of the first family and its two sons, Cain and Abel. This story does not have a fairy-tale ending with everyone living happily ever after. But two features are germane. First, the story of Cain and Abel is not the story of a two-sided feud, like the Hatfields and McCoys, but the account of the evil actions of one brother, Cain. In his evil actions, Cain showed that he was not a true brother to Abel. Second, Cain’s evil act created such a great rift in the family that we can longer even speak of a break in the family: it created two entirely separate families. The contrast between these families is spelled out in absolute terms. Abel represents the children of God, who are characterized by righteousness Cain represents the children of the devil who are known by evil.

III The Reassurance of the Family

This section of our text is about confidence in prayer as God’s dear children. We are not confident because we are perfectly obedient but rather because our changed lives demonstrate that we are in fellowship with God. John writes in  verses 19-24, This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. The Apostle has urged us to confess our sins and this means we are far from perfect and our assurance is often likely to be shaken. But when we, in our uncertainty, come to God admitting our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive and this restores our confidence. The reason is that we recognize that our advocate is Jesus Christ himself. Just as boldness and confidence characterize children who make requests of their parents, so too boldness and confidence are to distinguish the children of God as they approach God in prayer. In the forefront here is our intimacy with God or as the writer of Hebrews puts it our boldness to enter into the holiest place through the blood of Jesus. Our confidence is also bolstered by the evidence of God’s presence with us in the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Here John is not likely referring to an “inner testimony” or conviction that the Spirit gives us, a sort of feeling that we are indeed in relationship with God, entirely subjective. If it were merely subjective then those who acted like Cain and were departing could make the claim that they had the Spirit. But as Paul says in Romans 8;9, But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. No, the Spirit witnesses through the Word of God. There may be subjective experiences but the assurance that the Spirit is with us comes from the promises of the Word that come alive through the Spirit’s witness. This is the same way that we are assured of God’s love, through the Word  of truth and the Gospel. If we understand what it means to be in the family of God, then we will not be shaken by the conflicts and we will gain in confidence.