Hope Is Established by Love
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. (3:1)
John was overcome with wonder by the fact that sinners by divine grace became God’s children. The opening phrase of this verse, see how great a love, reflects the apostle’s amazement. The word translated see (idete) is both a command and an exclamation that exhorts readers to give close attention to the rest of the statement. How great (potapēn) is a seldom-used term that has no precise parallel in English. Concerning this word, D. Edmond Hiebert wrote,
The adjective rendered “what manner” [“how great”] (potapēn) occurs only seven times in the New Testament and implies a reaction of astonishment, and usually of admiration, upon viewing some person or thing. The expression conveys both a qualitative and quantitative force, “what glorious, measureless love!” (The Epistles of John [Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1991], 133; cf. Matt. 8:27; 2 Peter 3:11)
God loves believers with a love that is impossible to articulate in any human language and that is utterly foreign to normal human understanding and experience. This is agapē love, God’s volitional love that He, of His own free and uninfluenced choice, has bestowed on all whom He has called to savingly believe in Jesus Christ. The Lord summarized it this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And later in this letter, John notes,
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (4:9–10; cf. vv. 16, 19; John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 8:39; Eph. 2:4; Titus 3:4)
Such love seeks, at a great cost to itself, but only to give freely and spontaneously for the benefit of another, even if that person is not worthy of such an expression (cf. Deut. 7:7–8).
Since all of God’s attributes work in perfect harmony, His love necessarily operates in conjunction with each of His other attributes. He is lovingly holy (Rev. 4:8; 15:4), just (Isa. 30:18; Rom. 3:26; 1 Peter 3:18), merciful (Ps. 86:15; Luke 6:36; 2 Cor. 1:3), gracious (Ps. 103:8; 1 Peter 5:10), patient (2 Peter 3:9, 15), omniscient (Ps. 147:5; Rom. 11:33–34), omnipotent (Rom. 1:20; Rev. 19:6), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7–10; Jer. 23:23–24), and even wrathful (Ps. 7:11; Rev. 19:15). With regard to mankind, God’s love has a twofold expression: it is general toward unsaved humanity (common grace; Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:45; cf. Mark 10:21a) and specific toward believers (special grace; cf. John 13:1; Rom. 5:8; 8:38–39; 9:13–15; Eph. 5:25). It is this specific and unique love of God for His own that stands as one of the unshakeable foundations of eternal hope.
In other words, believers can live in hope because they have experienced God’s love in an eternal, saving way—having been adopted into His family (Rom. 8:16) and called children of God (John 1:12; cf. 2 Peter 1:4). They became His children solely because He lavishly bestowed on them a gracious, unmerited, sovereign love apart from any that has human merit. Such love is inexplicable in human terms. It is not surprising, then, that the world does not know the nature of the relationship between God and His children (cf. Heb. 11:38a), because it did not know Him. Those outside of Christ cannot fathom (1 Cor. 2:15–16; 1 Peter 4:3–4) the true essence and character of believers, which shines forth in their likeness to the heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ, their Savior and Lord (Matt. 5:16; Phil. 2:15; 1 Peter 2:12; cf. 1 Cor. 14:24–25). Even for believers it is a challenge “to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19a). Because Christians are so intrinsically different from the world around them, having been transformed by the Father who adopted them, the New Testament appropriately describes them as “strangers and exiles” (Heb. 11:13), “aliens” (1 Peter 1:1), and “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11). They are those who, in hope, “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16). And having declared them righteous in justification, He is making them righteous in sanctification and will perfect that righteousness in glorification when hope is realized.
1. Behold. The second argument is from the dignity and excellency of our calling; for it was not common honour, he says, that the heavenly Father bestowed on us, when he adopted us as his children. This being so great a favour, the desire for purity ought to be kindled in us, so as to be conformed to his image; nor, indeed, can it be otherwise, but that he who acknowledges himself to be one of God’s children should purify himself. And to make this exhortation more forcible, he amplifies the favour of God; for when he says, that love has been bestowed, he means that it is from mere bounty and benevolence that God makes us his children; for whence comes to us such a dignity, except from the love of God? Love, then, is declared here to be gratuitous. There is, indeed, an impropriety in the language; but the Apostle preferred speaking thus rather than not to express what was necessary to be known. He, in short, means that the more abundantly God’s goodness has been manifested towards us, the greater are our obligations to him, according to the teaching of Paul, when he besought the Romans by the mercies of God to present themselves as pure sacrifices to him. (Rom. 12:1.) We are at the same time taught, as I have said, that the adoption of all the godly is gratuitous, and does not depend on any regard to works.
What the sophists say, that God foresees those who are worthy to be adopted, is plainly refuted by these words, for, in this way the gift would not be gratuitous. It behoves us especially to understand this doctrine; for since the only cause of our salvation is adoption, and since the Apostle testifies that this flows from the mere love of God alone, there is nothing left to our worthiness or to the merits of works. For why are we sons? even because God began to love us freely, when we deserved hatred rather than love. And as the Spirit is a pledge of our adoption, it hence follows, that if there be any good in us, it ought not to be set up in opposition to the grace of God, but, on the contrary, to be ascribed to him.
When he says that we are called, or named, the expression is not without its meaning; for it is God who with his own mouth declares us to be sons, as he gave a name to Abraham according to what he was.
Therefore the world. It is a trial that grievously assaults our faith, that we are not so much regarded as God’s children, or that no mark of so great an excellency appears in us, but that, on the contrary, almost the whole world treats us with ridicule and contempt. Hence it can hardly be inferred from our present state that God is a Father to us, for the devil so contrives all things as to obscure this benefit. He obviates this offence by saying that we are not as yet acknowledged to be such as we are, because the world knows not God: a remarkable example of this very thing is found in Isaac and Jacob; for though both were chosen by God, yet Ishmael persecuted the former with laughter and taunts; and Esau, the latter with threats and the sword. However, then, we may be oppressed by the world, still our salvation remains safe and secure.
3:1 / The idea of being born of God is so inspiring to the Elder that he exclaims (lit.), “Behold! What great love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God!” He explores this theme for three verses before returning to the contrast between sin and righteousness begun in 2:29.
It is love which has motivated God to claim us as his children. While the two previous references to love (agapē; 2:5, 15) were to human love, this is the first reference to God’s love. (God’s love will be the author’s main focus in 4:7–10, 12, 16–18.) God’s love has been lavished on us. The perfect tense connotes love which has been and continues to be given to us, with the continuing consequence that we are called children of God. People are born into God’s family (2:29; John 1:13) and are given the right to become children of God because they have “received” the Word and have “believed in his name” (John 1:12–13). These are the people for whom Jesus died, including believers from “the Jewish nation,” as well as “the scattered children of God” (future Gentile believers), that he might make them one (John 11:52; 17:20–23; cf. John 10:16). Such people “do what is right” (1 John 2:29) and thereby show that they are in reality what God called them to be (and that is what we are!).
The Elder reinforces the divine origin of the believing community because its status as God’s children is unknown to the world; the surrounding culture does not see it and confirm it. The Johannine Christians must hold on to their true identity “against the stream.” But, in being unknown to the world and in having a secret identity, the community can take special pride, for prior to them Jesus (niv, him) was also “unknown” to his contemporaries John 1:10–11; 8:19; 14:7, 9; 15:18–21; 16:3; cf. 3:32; 4:10; 7:27–28; 14:17; 17:25).
Children of the heavenly Father
Safely in his bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.
—Carolina V. Sandell Berg
trans. Ernst William Olson
1. 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! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
Note the following:
- The love of God
In the Greek, John begins this sentence with a command: “See.” He wants the readers to observe the manifestations of the Father’s love. He introduces the subject of the love of God in the preceding chapter (2:5, 15), briefly discusses it in this chapter (3:1, 16, 17), and fully explains it in the next chapter (4:7–9, 10, 12, 16–18). The readers ought to fathom the kind of love the Father gives his children. That love is great. The Greek word translated “how great” or “what kind of” occurs only six times in the New Testament and “always implies astonishment and generally admiration.”
John does not say “the Father loves us.” Then he would describe a condition. Instead, he writes, “the Father has lavished [his love] on us” and thus portrays an action and the extent of God’s love. John has chosen the word Father purposely. That word implies the Father-child relationship. However, God did not become Father when he adopted us as children. God’s fatherhood is eternal. He is eternally the Father of Jesus Christ and through Jesus he is our Father. Through Jesus we receive the Father’s love and are called “children of God.”
- Children of God
What an honor! God calls us his children and gives us the assurance that as his children we are heirs and co-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). God gives the right to become children of God (John 1:12) to all who in faith have received Christ as Lord and Savior. God extends his love to his Son Jesus Christ and through him to all his adopted children.
John underscores the reality of our status when he writes that already, at present, we are children of God. “And that is what we are!” In other words, God does not give us a promise which he will fulfill in the future. No, in fact we are already God’s children. We enjoy all the rights and privileges our adoption entails, because we have come to know God as our Father.
- Knowledge of God
God’s children experience the love of God. They profess him as their Father, for they have an experiential knowledge of God. They put their trust and faith in him who loves them, provides for them, and protects them.
The hostile, unbelieving world, however, does not know the children of God. Unbelievers cannot understand us, says John, because they do not know God (compare John 16:2–3). “The world does not recognize us because it never recognized him.” The unbelieving world lives separated from God and will never know the significance of our spiritual relationship with God. If we were to become worldly, we would forfeit our status as children of God. By rejecting us, however, the world confirms our relationship with God the Father.