Text: 1 John 2:3-17
Earlier we mentioned that John’s epistle is characterized by its steady critique of false teachers. These false teachers denied that Jesus was God incarnate and they denied that Christians needed to live holy lives and to put away sin. If these false teachers were indeed gnostics, then they also would have taught that only those especially enlightened Christians, possessing secret knowledge, could be saved. In the second chapter, John seems to critique this notion as well, saying that the only true knowledge of God is that which brings obedient love and the only people who should have assurance of their salvation are those who love God by obeying His commandments.
How do you have assurance?
John begins this section with the topic of assurance. He calls this “knowing God.” To know God is to both know about God and to experience Him in your personal spiritual life. And John tells us how we can know that we know God (vs. 3). We can have assurance if we keep His commandments: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (vs. 3).
He explains this more in vs. 4-6:
He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
John makes the point that no one can know God unless they keep His commandments and walk as Jesus walked. The false teachers who claim to have a mystical knowledge of God that allows them to live however they please are, simply, liars.
But those of us familiar with the theology of the apostle Paul and the legacy of justification by faith alone might have some questions here. Isn’t this legalism? Are we really saying that assurance comes from our own good works? To understand this, we must understand what new testament “commandments” are. We must understand the nature of New Testament commandments.
Love = Keeping the Commandments (And vice versa)
When John speaks of keeping the commandments of God, he is not simply talking about a list of dos and don’ts, but instead what he calls “the love of God.” Keeping God’s word is how you can see “the love of God… perfected” in you, he says. And as we will see, keeping the commandments of God is the same thing as living a life of love, and living a life of love is the same thing as keeping the commandments of God. The two are the same. In this teaching, John is simply following the teaching of Christ.
“Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning” (vs. 7-8). This old commandment came from the beginning, by which John means that it came from Christ. In John’s gospel, Jesus said this, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). And he went on to say that, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:25). This old commandment then is the commandment to love, and it is the way in which we can know that we are followers of Jesus, just as it is the way that world can know we are followers of Jesus.
John then shifts to say that he is now giving a new commandment: “Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining” (vs. 8). But the New Commandment is the Old Commandment (vs. 7-8; also see John 13:34). It is the command to love.
This brings us to the explanation of John’s teaching that we can know that we know God by keeping His commandments. He does not mean the keeping of the Jewish law. He does not even mean meritorious good deeds in a legalistic fashion. What he means is that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the way of light, the very life of God Himself.
That love is the fulfillment of the law is as a consistent theme in John’s gospel and the rest of the NT.
1 John 3:22-24 …And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment.
1 John 4:20-21 If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
1 John 5:1-3 Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
John 14:15 If you love Me, keep My commandments.
John 14:21, 22-24He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.
Other NT Passages
Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
James 2:8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well.
This commandment is an old commandment because it goes all the way back to Moses. It is, as Jesus taught us, the summary of the whole law: to love God and our neighbor. However this is also a new commandment because defines the life of holiness as one of free love but a love that has a definite character and shape. This can be a very complicated teaching in one respect because it seems to incorporate two contradictory ideas. We are both called to live moral and righteous lives, doing good towards our neighbors, but we are also called to do this freely, not out of compulsion and not according to a positive list of demands, but rather out of free love.
Indeed, love is the internalization and free expression of the law. Our love for others is an outflowing of our love for God. Thus loving God is expressed by living a life of righteousness, and vice versa. This teaching about love, that it brings spontaneous but necessary obedience, is actually a part of the classical teaching on love. John Calvin explains this concept by citing Plato:
Plato, though groping in darkness, yet denied that “the beautiful” which he imagined, could be known, without filling man with the admiration of itself; so he says in his Phaedrus and in other places. How then is it possible for thee to know God, and to be moved by no feeling? Nor does it indeed proceed only from God’s nature, that to know him is immediately to love him; but the Spirit also, who illuminates our minds, inspires our hearts with a feeling conformable to our knowledge. At the same time the knowledge of God leads us to fear him and to love him. For we cannot know him as Lord and Father, as he shews himself, without being dutiful children and obedient servants. In short, the doctrine of the gospel is a lively mirror in which we contemplate the image of God, and are transformed into the same, as Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 3:18. Where, therefore, there is no pure conscience, nothing can be there but an empty phantom of knowledge.
It is essential to note here that the love of God which leads to righteousness is an expression of our admiration and adoration of God. Upon “knowing Him,” we cannot but love Him, for He is the true, the good, and the beautiful. And when we truly know God, we are overcome by the experience. This helps understand how to keep His commands. We must be continually experiencing His love.
This is what John’s nearly hymnodic verse is meant to accomplish in vs. 12-14. They are not really a list for specific subgroups of the church, but they are instead John’s attempt to woo his audience, reminding them of God’s love for them so as to instill new love for God in them. He is speaking to the whole church, reminding them what God has done for them in Christ. And this is why practices like regular prayer, devotion, and worship are essential to our sanctification. We have to continually forge our love for God, and this means that we must continually contemplate Him and seek to experience His love for us.
Love Not the World (vs. 15-17)
John’s last point here is that love by itself is not virtuous. You must love the right thing. You cannot love God if you love that which is opposed to Him. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (vs. 15-16). This shows us that individual sin is not the main problem. While all sin should be avoided, John has also told us that we will always have sin in this life. The main problem is not the sin itself but rather the love of the sin. Just as loving God is the keeping of His commandments, the love of sin is the breaking of God’s commandments. Do not love the things of this world for they are not of the Father.
Therefore do not love the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. What do these things have in common? They are all self-focused. They are not aimed at the betterment of your neighbor, but rather the fulfillment of self. Additionally, John says, these things are all temporary. “And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (vs. 17). These things are not eternal. They will not last forever. Loving these things will ultimately leave you empty.
Instead, love the Father. This is how you know Him, if you love Him and live that love by loving others. This is how you will abide forever, if you love what is forever. This is the eternal light which alone gives us spiritual light, which gives us true knowledge.
We can say this about love. Love is always aimed at something. It is not merely the presence of emotion or desire, but rather its object. We must love that which is worthy of love. We must love the lovely. And we can know love. We can judge love and evaluate it by comparing it to the character of God, the truly lovely one. In short, we know who we love by looking at what we love. If we know God, then we will love Him. We have to. It is the only possibility. And when we know that we love God, we know that we know God.