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 first three verses of ch. 3 elaborate the status of the person who passes the test of love at 2:29. Childhood has both disadvantages and eschatological benefits. The disadvantages are explored at 3:1 in language that echoes several passages from the fourth gospel, most notably the prologue (Jn 1:1–18) and the farewell (Jn 13–17). Jesus came to his own, but the world did not “know him” (Jn 1:10; 1 Jn 3:1) and does not know his disciples either. Because of this ignorance the world hates God and Jesus and will also hate anyone born of God (Jn 15:18–16:4; 17:14–15). The difficulties this creates for believers are, however, far outweighed by the eschatological benefits of childhood, which John explores in vv. 2–3.
3:1 John now proceeds to bring the ideas of the new birth and the parousia into conjunction with each other. He describes the wonder of the present status of believers as God’s beloved sons, and then comments on their even higher position which is to be revealed at the parousia. This status is no less real for being unrecognized by the sinful world. And the thought of “such amazing bliss” in store for us should not only “constant joys create” but also act as an incentive to holy living.
From the thought of the new birth, then, John’s thought moves to the great love shown by God, as a result of which we have become his children. The train of thought has an interesting parallel in John 3 where the conversation with Nicodemus about the new birth from above through which alone men can enter the kingdom of God is followed by the magnificent declaration of the divine love which sent God’s only Son so that we might have eternal life. John’s appeal to his readers to consider the greatness of God’s love has been lost in the NIV; contrast the TEV, “See how much the Father has loved us!” A slightly unusual word is used to express the sense “how great,”20 and John speaks of the Father “giving” his love, as if it were a gift to be received. The NIV catches the sense well by using the verb “lavished” to express the meaning, but it is perhaps given most felicitously in a Scottish paraphrase, based on a rendering by Isaac Watts:
Behold the amazing gift of love
The Father hath bestowed
On us, the sinful sons of men,
To call us sons of God!
The “love package” contains our title to be called children of God. Jesus promised a blessing for those who make peace: “they will be called sons of God” (Mt. 5:9). This blessing is now generalized, and covers all disciples. (We may legitimately argue in the opposite direction that if all disciples are sons of God, then all disciples ought to be makers of peace.) The picture is that of legitimation: by naming the child as his son, the father acknowledges that it is indeed his child. There is no legal fiction in this. But, lest any readers might draw this false conclusion, John emphasizes that those whom God names as his children really are such. The new birth is a reality. Once again, John is expressing the assurance which believers can possess here and now of their standing in God’s sight.
Because we are God’s children the world does not recognize us, since it did not recognize him either. In fact the world hates the children of God (3:13), just as it hated Jesus (Jn. 15:18f.), since they do not belong to the world. This very fact is a further proof that the readers are children of God: the way in which the world does not recognize them as being on its side is proof that they belong to God. Thus this comment, which at first sight may seem irrelevant, has a part to play in strengthening the readers’ assurance. Christians who are persecuted sometimes feel cut off from God because they are in a difficult and unpleasant situation, and they may be tempted to give up their faith; on the contrary, the very fact that they are being persecuted should strengthen their faith since it is an indication that the evil world recognizes that they have passed from death to life.
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).
1. Behold—calling attention, as to some wonderful exhibition, littleas the world sees to admire. This verse is connected with the previous 1 Jn 2:29, thus: All our doing of righteousness is a mere sign that God, of His matchless love, has adopted us as children; it does not save us, but is a proof that we are saved of His grace.
what manner of—of what surpassing excellence, how gracious on His part, how precious to us.
love … bestowed—He does not say that God hath given us some gift, but love itself and the fountain of all honors, the heart itself, and that not for our works or efforts, but of His grace [Luther].
that—“what manner of love”; resulting in, proved by, our being, &c. The immediate effect aimed at in the bestowal of this love is, “that we should be called children of God.”
should be called—should have received the privilege of such a glorious title (though seeming so imaginary to the world), along with the glorious reality. With God to call is to make really to be. Who so great as God? What nearer relationship than that of sons? The oldest manuscripts add, “And we are so” really.
therefore—“on this account,” because “we are (really) so.”
us—the children, like the Father.
it knew him not—namely, the Father. “If they who regard not God, hold thee in any account, feel alarmed about thy state” [Bengel]. Contrast 1 Jn 5:1. The world’s whole course is one great act of non-recognition of God.
Ver. 1.—Behold what manner of love! Ποταπός; literally, “of what country,” in the New Testament always implies amazement (Matt. 8:27; Mark 13:1; Luke 1:29; 7:39; 2 Pet. 3:11); but, as the original meaning leads us to expect, it implies marvellous quality rather than marvellous size. “Love” must be taken literally: the Divine love itself, and not a mere proof of it, has been given. Ποταπὴν ἀγάπην strikes the key-note of the whole section. “And the goal of this love (ἵνα), is that once for all (aorist) we have received the title ‘children of God.’ ” And, whatever cavillers may say, the title is rightfully ours. (The words, “and (such) we are,” are quite rightly inserted in the Revised Version after “children of God.”) This is shown by the fact that the world does not recognize us as such, because from the first it did not recognize God. Had it known the Father, it would have known the children. Διὰτοῦτο in St. John refers to what precedes (5:16, 18; 7:22; 8:47; 10:17; 12:18, 27, 39); it does not merely anticipate the ὅτι which follows it. In logical phraseology we have here first the major premise, then the conclusion introduced by διὰ τοῦτο, then (to clench the argument) the minor premise introduced by ὅτι—
We are children of God;
Therefore the world knows us not,
For the world knows not God.
But we must beware of supposing that every one who fails to recognize our form of Christianity is necessarily of the world. St. John invariably (but comp. Rev. 21:7) speaks of “children of God” (τέκνα Θεοῦ), St. Paul generally of “sons of God” (υἱοὶ Θεοῦ). The latter expression can apply to adopted sons; the former, strictly speaking, implies actual parentage. In saying κληθῶμεν, καί ἐσμεν, St. John appeals to the conscious nobility of Christians: we have this magnificent title with its corresponding dignity.
1. John begins his description of God as Father (with its correlative: believers are his children) by combining the themes of regeneration (v 1) and parousia (v 2). These twin ideas look back to 2:28–29, where they are found in the reverse order. The effect is a chiasm:
new birth (29)
new birth (1)
Moreover, the writer’s allusion to the fatherhood of God enables him to provide his readers with timely encouragement in their ongoing spiritual experience and warfare. They are God’s children for the present (v 1), and also for eternity (v 2).
In this v three motifs are introduced which will be taken up and developed in the present passage, and in two subsequent sections of 1 John: sonship (3:2–9); love (3:10–24); and the separation of Christians from the “world” (4:1–6). Cf. Malatesta, Interiority, 237.
ἴδετε ποταπὴν ἀγάπην δέδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ πατήρ, “consider how lavish is the love which the Father has showered upon us!” John’s excitement is evident, as he invites his readers to consider “how lavish is the love which the Father has showered upon us!” The plural ἴδετε (“consider”) heightens the sense of enthusiasm; especially since, elsewhere in the NT, this plural form is used only with reference to something “actually visible” (Westcott, 95; cf. Gal 6:11, “see what large letters I use!”). The word ποταπήν (“how lavish”), rarely used in the NT, sustains this atmosphere, and introduces a note of wonder: God’s love is so “lavish.” In the NT ποταπίς (literally, “of what sort”) usually describes that which is surprising or admirable (Brooke, 80); but, whereas the term commonly means “of what a kind” (cf. Matt 8:27; 2 Pet 3:11), here it signifies “of what a degree” (cf. Mark 13:1, ἴδε ποταποὶ λίθοι, “look, what massive stones!”). Cf. further Marshall, 170 n.20.
Lavish indeed is the love which God the Father has “showered” upon his children! The verb δέδωκεν (literally, “given”) probably stops short of the meaning assigned to it by Westcott (95): “the love is not simply exhibited towards believers, but imparted to them.” (For that sense cf. 4:7; see further Law, Tests, 385.) The phrase ἀγάπην δέδωκεν (unique in the NT) suggests—in combination with ποταπήν—the extent of God’s love, which has graciously been “showered” on believers as their “inalienable possession” (Law, Tests, 385, who believes that the expression ἀγάπην δέδωκεν [literally, “he has given love”] is stronger than the language of “God so loved the world” in John 3:16). For the phraseology cf. also John 14:27, εἰρήνην τὴν ἐμὴν δίδωμι ὑμῖν, “my peace I give you.”
For the concept of “love” (ἀγάπη) in 1 John see the comment on 2:5; cf. also 2:15. The choice of the title ὁ πατήρ (“the Father”) for God is undoubtedly determined by the designation of believers as his “children” (τέκνα θεοῦ, “God’s children”) in the next clause. For the typically Johannine use of πατήρ, with reference to God, see the comment on 1:2; cf. also 2:1.
ἱνα τέκνα θεοῦ κληθῶμεν καὶ ἐσμέν, “that we should be called God’s children! And that is what we are.” This ἱνα (“that”) clause is epexegetic, since it explains the force of the preceding sentence. The “lavish” nature of God’s love is indicated by the fact that he, as Father, is the author of spiritual sonship. (Westcott, 96, points out that by using θεοῦ [“of God”], instead of the simple pronoun αὑτοῦ [“of him”], John emphasizes the nobility of the Christian’s position: believers are “children of Him who is God.”) Those who acknowledge him, that is to say, can be “called God’s children” (cf. 2:22–23).
This phrase would have been familiar to John, and the members of his church, from its use in the Fourth Gospel (cf. 1:12; 11:52). But the idea of Christians as those whose personal relationship to God can be defined in intimate and filial terms, as children within the Father’s family, was not confined to Johannine circles. It probably runs back, for example, to the words of Jesus recorded in Matt 5:9 (the peacemakers “will be called sons of God,” υἱοὶ θεοῦ κληθήσονται). John, however, never uses the title υἱός, “son,” to define the relation of Christians to God; he reserves this for Jesus. See 3:2, 10; 5:2; and further, Phil 2:15; Rev 21:7. Note also the comment on “born of God” at 2:29 (Brooke, 80, finds an interesting parallel to this passage in the Mishnah, Pirqe Aboth 3:22, citing Deut 14:1).
The anarthrous expression τέκνα θεοῦ (“God’s children”) may be deliberate. John is not contrasting “the children of God” with others; he is referring absolutely to “children of God.” (So Law, Tests, 385–86, who compares σπέρμα θεοῦ, literally, “God’s seed,” in 3:9.) Against this, however, must be set the use of τέκνα (“children”) with the definite article in 3:10 and 5:2 (despite the recurrence of τέκνα θεοῦ in 3:2). For “children of God” in 1 John see further Westcott, 122–24; also Dodd, 68–69. On τέκνα θεοῦ in 3:1–2, 10; 5:2, as a self-designation of the Johannine community, see Culpepper, NTS 27 (1980/81) 25–26; cf. also John 8:31–38.
John is describing God’s relationship to his believing people as that of “Father” to “children.” The description is significant, both as an indication of God’s personal and loving nature, and also as a definition of the resulting status of Christians. They are God’s children (καὶ ἐσμέν, “and that is what we are”), and members of his household: not only in name, but also in fact (cf. further G. Fohrer, TDNT 8  344–45). The privilege and position, to which John here draws attention, may be even greater if there is an implied allusion in this v to Christians as those who share God’s very nature (cf. “we shall be like him” in v 2).
The NT never admits the possibility of human beings becoming “deified” (even in the reference to “participating in the divine nature” at 2 Pet 1:4); although the Greek fathers spoke of the Christian’s final transfiguration in this way (cf. Athanasius, de Incarnatione Verbi 4.22). But it does proclaim that those who know the Father through the Son can enter into, and appropriate, the actual life of God (2:25; 5:11–12; cf. John 17:3), and become transformed into his likeness (2 Cor 3:18). In specifically Johannine terms, they have “passed by regeneration out of the sphere of ‘flesh’ into the sphere of ‘spirit’ ” (Dodd, 69, who quotes John 3:5–6). Marshall (169–70) adds that John 3 as a whole, with its linked themes of spiritual rebirth and God’s life-giving love, provides a significant parallel to the train of thought in the present v. On “deification” see further B. Drewery, “Deification,” 49–54.
διὰ τοῦτο ὁ κόσμος … ἔγνω αὐτόν “this is why the world … has not recognized him.” A problem of interpretation is presented by the Gr. of this sentence, because it is not immediately clear to what διὰ τοῦτο (“this is why”) refers. (a) It may point forward, and explain the reason (ὅτι, “because”) why Christians are not recognized by the world (cf. the same construction in John 5:16, 18; 12:39). So most translations, including our own; also Stott, 118. (b) However, διὰ τοῦτο may look backward to the first part of this v, in which case the sense is, “for this reason (that we are God’s children) the world does not recognize us”; and the ὅτι clause then functions as an additional explanation (“for it has not recognized him”). So Haas, Handbook, 77; cf. Houlden, 90; Marshall, 171 n.25.
In the end, perhaps, the meaning of this v is not greatly altered whichever way διᾶ τοῦτο is taken. However, the thought here concerns the character of the Christian. As children of a heavenly Father the disposition of believers both derives from, and may be identified with, the nature of God: “like Father, like son.” It therefore follows that rejection of God will result in a rejection of his disciples. This appears to be the exact thrust of this part of v 1; and we thus adopt the former interpretation (a) as the more likely.
There is also a problem raised by John’s use of αὑτόν (“him”) at the end of this sentence. Does it refer to God (cf. v 1a; so Haas, Handbook, 76–77), or to Jesus (cf. v 2b; so Bultmann, 48)? We know that John’s christology is such that he can associate Jesus very closely with God, as well as distinguishing the persons of the Father and the Son. This accounts for the measure of ambivalence which sometimes surrounds John’s references to the Godhead (see on 2:29); and, on occasions, this may be deliberate. In this instance, therefore, the meaning could be “God in Christ” (so Westcott, 97); and this would accord with John’s emphasis in this letter on the direct relation of Christians to God as being consistently realized in Christ (cf. Brooke, 80). See 1:3; 2:1, 24.
However, (a) the writer is concentrating intially in 3:1–3 on the character of God as Father; and (b) in his treatment he moves from God to Jesus, as in 2:29 he had moved from Jesus to God. It seems likely, therefore, that the predominant meaning of οὐκ ἔγνω αὑτόν (“it has not recognized him”) is that the “world” (namely, humanity in opposition to God; see the comment on 2:15) has not known the Father, and as a result it fails to recognize his children (cf. 1 Cor 2:12–16). Nevertheless, a reference to Jesus may not be entirely excluded. The world hates God’s children (3:13), just as it hated God’s Son (John 15:18–19). The aorist ἔγνω (literally, “known”) may indicate here precisely the period of the earthly ministry exercised by Jesus.
There is a positive side to the fact that the world does not “recognize” God’s children. The truth that Christians belong to God’s family is attested by the “hatred” of the world. With such an assurance John is able to encourage his readers, and help to establish their faith (cf. Marshall, 171).
Once more, the idea that John’s (orthodox) readers can be described as the offspring, or “children,” of God carries with it sectarian overtones. For the result is a division of humanity into those who belong to God and those who belong to the “world”; and a tension between these two groups is thereby set up. We have already noticed the extent to which John’s church may be characterized as “sectarian”; and we concluded that this description, if allowed, is valid organizationally but not doctrinally (see above, 90). Cf. further the comments on 2:15–17, especially v 15.
Nevertheless, the separation of the church from the world, which John implies in his discussion at this point (see also 2:15–27), may have been deliberately introduced. Although from 3:1 onward the writer concentrates on his orthodox, rather than heterodox, readers, the threat of the heretics is always present in his mind (cf. 2:19; 4:1–6). Thus in the present v he may be (unconsciously?) resisting the gnostic tendency to distinguish between the initiated élite and the rest of the doomed world by pointing out that those who are God’s children through Christ are the true initiates, and that the membership of this family is not exclusive; anyone is eligible to join (cf. 2:2, 20, 23). If this is so, it may account for John’s choice of the catchword γινώσκειν (literally, “to know,” in the present γινώσκει and the aorist) here. In answer to the gnostics, he may be indicating the criterion by which the genuine believer can be “recognized” (that he is a member of God’s family); although in itself (John claims) this is likely to bring about rejection by the unbelieving “world” at large (including the gnostic heretics!). Cf. 2:19, 22.
Houlden (89) compares John’s (ethical) “dualism” in this v with that present in the literature of the Qumran sect (cf. 1QS 3:22, with its reference to mankind as being ruled either by the “prince of light” or by the “angel of darkness”).
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 531). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.