Do you remember last week’s passage? John was responding to three false claims which certain people were making about sin. The first false claim that some people were making was that sin doesn’t matter. I can have a relationship with God and keeping on sinning, because sin doesn’t matter. The second false claim that some people were making was that I am not a sinner. I have no sin. There is no sin in me. And the third false claim that some people were making was that I have not sinned. So, while we’re all sinners in theory, nevertheless I have not sinned. Other people may sin, but not me.
And John responded to each of these false claims one by one. To those who say that sin doesn’t matter, he made clear that sin does matter, because God is light and in order to have a relationship with God, we must step out of the darkness of our sin and into the light of God’s goodness. We must give up our old life of sin and begin a new life of obedience to God.
And to those who say that they have no sin, John made clear that such people are only deceiving themselves. And what they need to do is confess their sins to God, who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
And to those who say they they have not sinned, John said they were making God a liar. And they were making God a liar because doesn’t God tell us in his word that we have all sinned? However, if anybody does sin — and we all sin — we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence. He was talking about the Lord Jesus, who speaks up on our behalf, because he’s paid for our sins with his life when he offered himself as the perfect, atoning sacrifice for sins and when he took the blame for all that we have done wrong.
That was last week. In this week’s passage, John — as it were — looks on the other side of the same coin. So, if one side of the coin is all about sin, the other side of the same coin is all about obedience. If sin matters, then obedience also matters.
That’s what today’s passage is about, because just as people were saying that sin doesn’t matter, so there were people who were saying that obedience doesn’t matter. And John wants to make clear to his readers that obedience does matter, because obedience leads to assurance. Obedience leads to assurance. How can I know that my faith is real? How can I know that I really am a believer? You can tell whether your faith is real based on whether or not you want to obey God.
The NIV slightly obscures things for us, but John uses the same expression three times in today’s passage to introduce those who claim to be believers. He says it in verse 4:
He says it in verse 6:
And he says it in verse 9:
In verse 4 it’s ‘Whoever says I know him [God].’ In verse 6 it’s ‘Whoever says he lives in him [in God].’ And in verse 9 it’s ‘Whoever says he is in the light.’ So, here are people who claim to be believers. They claim to know God and to live in God and to be in the light. How can they know whether they really know God and live in him and are in the light? How can they know? How can they be sure? And John responds to each claim by making clear how they can know for sure.
Let’s turn to verse 3 where John says that we know that we have come to know God if we obey his commands. The word ‘know’ — which John uses twice in this one verse — has two different meanings. So, we can know something to be the case. That is, we know something to be true. For instance, we all know it to be the case that Sunday morning worship in Immanuel begins at 11.30am. That’s the first meaning of the word ‘know’. The second is to know a person. So, you know the members of your family and you know your friends and you know your neighbours and your colleagues at work. You know them personally. That’s the second meaning of the word ‘know’. And John uses both meanings of the word ‘know’ in verse 3. He’s saying to us: this is how we know it to be true that we have come to know God personally. So, how can we know it to be true that we have come to know God personally? How can I tell whether my relationship to God is real? How can I tell I’m a true Christian who knows God? How can I tell?
John explains it for us: we know it to be true that we have come to know God personally if we obey God. So, the person who knows God will obey God.
Now, since we’re sinners, who sin against God continually, then there’s not one of us who obeys God perfectly. None of us obeys God all of the time; and even our best deeds are spoiled by sin. And, of course, John knows this to be the case, because he said in chapter 1 that the person who claims to be without sin is deceived. So, what does John mean when he says that the person who knows God obeys God? This is where John Calvin, the French Reformer, helps us, because he says John is referring to those who strive, according to the capacity of human infirmity, to form their life in obedience to God. Or to put it more simply: John is referring to the person who wants to obey God. And so, the person who knows God wants to obey God and will strive to obey him according to their own ability.
Now John doesn’t explain why this is the case, but it’s obvious, isn’t it? Once we’ve come to know God and all that he has done for us to deliver us from our sin and misery by his Son, then we’ll want to obey him out of love and gratitude. The whole of the gospel displays to us the love of God for sinners, and how he did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us and for our salvation. And in the gospel, we discover the steadfast love of God and his willingness to treat us, not as our sins deserve, but according to his grace and mercy. And once we come to know God’s grace and mercy and the greatness of his love for us, displayed in the cross of Christ, then we’ll be moved to obey him. We’ll want to please him because we love him.
Verses 4 to 5a
The person who knows God wants to obey God. Let’s turn now to verse 4 where we have the reverse. Here’s a person who claims to know God, but who does not do what God commands. How should we regard that person?
This person claims to know God. He claims to be a believer. He says he’s a Christian. He professes faith in Christ. And yet, he’s not interested in obeying God. He’s not concerned about keeping God’s commandments. He’s not bothered whether he obeys or not. He still wants to do whatever he likes; and live his life his own way; and no-one is going to tell him what to do, least of all God. Does that person really know God? Is that person’s profession of faith genuine? Well, says John, that person is deceived. The truth is not in him. So, he’s mistaken. He doesn’t really know God, because if he really knew God and if he really knew all that God has done for sinners, then he would make it his aim in life to please God and to do God’s will. He’s deceived.
On the other hand — and we’re looking now at the first half of verse 5 — if anyone obeys God’s word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. Once again, since we’re all sinners who sin against God continually, we take it that when John says ‘if anyone obeys God’s word’, he means something like, ‘if anyone wants to obey God’s word’ or ‘if anyone obeys God’s word according to his ability’. So, if anyone wants to obey God and endeavours to obey God, then God’s love is truly made complete in him. And when John refers to God’s love here, he’s referring to the believer’s love for God.
And so, how can someone tell whether they really know and love God? How can someone tell that their love for God is real? Well, it’s the same answer as before, isn’t it? The person who knows God and who loves God will obey God. That person will obey God’s word. Those who know and love God will make it their aim in life to obey him. This will be their joy. This will be their desire. They will want to obey God’s word because they know God and they love God.
And, it all makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? What would we say about the child who all her life has benefitted from the love and care of her parents, but who then rebelled and refused to obey her parents or to listen to what they said? We would think that child was ungrateful, wouldn’t we? We would ask her where her gratitude is for all that her parents have done for her, bringing her up, giving her all she needed, helping her every day? Where is your gratitude towards your parents for all they have done? And the way we show our love and gratitude to God for all that he has done for us is by obeying him.
How had God loved us? He gave us us our life and he has filled our life with good things to enjoy. And so, everything around us speaks to us of God’s love and kindness towards us. And most of all, he has loved us by giving up his Son to death on the cross to save us from our sin and misery and to give us the free gift of eternal life. That’s how he has loved us. And those who know him and who love him will want to obey him out of gratitude for all that he has done.
Verses 5b and 6
But let’s move on now to the second half of verse 5 and verse 6 where we have the second claim. The first claim is from the person who says, ‘I know God.’ The second claim is from the person who says, ‘I live in God.’
What does it mean to live in God? Probably the easiest way to explain this is to refer back to what John said in verse 3 of chapter 1 where he wrote about having fellowship with the Father and with the Son. So, whenever we believe in Christ, we’re united to God the Father through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. In other words, we’re drawn together with God and are forever connected to him. So John is once again writing about the person who claims to be a believer and who claims to have a relationship with God.
And this time he says that the person who claims to be a believer must walk as Jesus did. In other words, those who claim to believe must live as Jesus lived and do as Jesus did and follow Christ’s example of obedience to his Father. One of the features of John’s gospel is how the Lord Jesus tells us again and again that he had come to do his Father’s will. And so, those who believe must follow his example and we must endeavour to do God’s will here on earth. Just as the Lord Jesus obeyed his heavenly Father, so we must obey our heavenly Father.
And, of course, this means that the person who claims to be a believer, but who does not walk as Jesus walked, is deceived. That person may claim to live in God and to have a relationship with God. That person may come to church on Sundays. But if she’s not interested in obeying God the rest of the week, then she’s deceived, because the true believer will endeavour to do as Jesus did and to obey our Father in heaven. The true believer may go astray and disobey the Father in heaven. However, when he disobeys, he’s sorry for his sins, because what he really wants to do is to obey.
Verses 7 and 8
The first claim is from the person who says, ‘I know God.’ The second claim is from the person who says, ‘I live in God.’ Before we get to the third claim in verse 9, John first tells us about a new command. So, we’re now looking at verses 7 and 8.
Dear friends, he says, I am not writing you a new command, but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. When he refers to ‘the beginning’, he probably means since they first believed the gospel. So, whenever you first believed, and began life as a Christian, you knew this command. This is one of the first things a new believer learns. And so, this is not a new command, because you’ve heard it before.
However, he then goes on in verse 8 to say that he is writing them a new command. So, in verse 7 he says it’s not a new command, but in verse 8 he says it is a new command. What’s he talking about? Most of the commentators believe he’s referring to the Lord’s words in John 13:34 where the Lord said to his disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
The Lord Jesus loved us by giving up his life for us. He loved us with a sacrificial love. He put others before himself. And that’s how we’re to love one another. We’re to love one another sacrificially. Instead of putting self first, we’re to put others first. We’re to love and serve others, just as Christ came, not to be served by us, but to serve us.
And John tells us that the truth of this new command is seen in him and in you. So, it’s seen in Christ, because he demonstrated his love for us by giving up his life for us. And this love is also seen in God’s people. That is, it’s seen in true believers, because those who truly know God and who really believe will be anxious to do God’s will and to obey his commands, including his new command to love others.
And John goes on to say that this is true of God’s people because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. I said last week that the word ‘darkness’ is often used in the Bible to refer to wickedness and to sin. So, God is light, because he’s holy and pure; and there’s no darkness or sin in him. But in this verse, John seems to be using ‘darkness’ in a different sense. He now seems to be referring to what the Apostle Paul calls ‘this present evil age’. The god of this present evil age is the Devil. And the Devil rules over sinners who belong to this present evil age, so that they do his will. And therefore life in this present evil age is marked by sin and shame. It’s charactered by darkness. This present evil age is the age of darkness.
But this present evil age, this present darkness, is passing away. And it’s passing away because Christ, the true Light from heaven, has come into the world. And he came to rescue his people from the present evil age and from its darkness and to bring them into the age to come, which is characterised by light and holiness and purity and goodness and obedience to God.
And so, because we’ve been rescued from this present evil age, which is characterised by darkness and sin, and because we now belong to the new age, which is characterised by light and obedience, God’s people will be want obey God’s new command to love one another as Christ loved us.
Verses 9 to 11
And that takes me to the third claim. The first claim is from the person who says, ‘I know God.’ The second claim is from the person who says, ‘I live in God.’ The third claim is from the person who says, ‘I am in the light.’ Once again, this person is claiming to be a believer, because believers belong in the light of the new age and not to the darkness of the present evil age.
How can this person know that what they claim about themselves is true? How can this person know that they really are in the light? Well, the answer is simple, isn’t it? John says in verse 9 that if someone claims to be in the light, but hates his Christian brother or sister, then he’s still in the darkness. And when John refers to hating his Christian brother or sister, he’s not thinking of someone who actively hates Christians and persecutes them or is hostile towards them. He’s thinking about someone who fails to show love towards Christians. One person loves to be around unbelievers, because they’re his kind of people. And that same person hates to be around Christians, because he has nothing in common with them. Well, that shows what kind of person he really is and how he’s not yet in the light, but he’s still in the darkness, because the person who believes and who has been rescued from the darkness and brought into the light loves God’s people.
And so, as John says in verse 10, whoever loves his fellow believer lives in the light. And there’s nothing in that person which will cause him or her to stumble. On the other hand, those who don’t believe are still in the darkness. They still belong to this present evil age and therefore they’re walking around in darkness. And look: they don’t know where they’re going, because the sin in their lives and the sin all around them has blinded them.
It’s like when you have to get up in the night. And it’s dark. You can’t see where you’re going. You can’t see anything around you. You don’t know what you’re doing. And you can’t see that object on the floor which will make you stumble and fall down the stairs. That’s what it’s like for those who don’t believe. They’re stumbling around in the dark; and, before they know it, they will stumble and fall to their eternal destruction.
There we have three three claims. The first claim is from the person who says, ‘I know God.’ The second claim is from the person who says, ‘I live in God.’ The third claim is from the person who says, ‘I am in the light.’ How do we know whether what they claim is true? Well, do they want to obey God? And do they love God’s people? If they don’t want to obey God and if they don’t love God’s people, then they’re only deceiving themselves. But if they want to obey God and if they love God’s people, then they really do know God and they really do love him, because those who know God and who love him will want to obey him.
So, what about you? You’re here in church today. Presumably that means you claim to know God and to have a relationship with him. Presumably that means you claim to be a believer and to love God. Well, is what you claim true? Is your faith real? The answer to that question depends on whether or not you want to obey God and whether or not you love his people. If you don’t want to be obey him and if you don’t love his people, then, according to God’s word, you’re deceiving yourself. And that means you need to confess your unbelief to God and ask for his forgiveness. And you need to ask him to give you a true faith and to rescue you from the darkness and to bring you into the light, so that you will not stumble and fall to your eternal destruction.
But if your heart’s desire is to obey God and if you love God’s people, then that’s the sign that your faith is real. You do know God. You do live in him. You are in the light. And in that case, what should you do? You should give thanks to God for his kindness to you, because by nature you belonged to the darkness. But he rescued you by enabling you to believe in his Son for forgiveness. And he has taken away your old, hard heart and he’s given you a new heart to love him and to obey him and to love your fellow believer. And so, you should give thanks to him because of his kindness to you. And you should continue to display your thanks to him by obeying him each and every day.