John’s Epistle contain a simple summary of true religion. “If ye know that He is righteous, ye know that everyone that doeth righteousness is begotten of Him.” Thus far the Old Testament goes. Israel had learned this primary lesson of true religion, that the Almighty is the Righteous Power. Knowing Jehovah, not as a national deity who would help His own people whether they were right or wrong, but as the righteous God over all, who would reject His chosen people if they did wrong, the prophets saw clearly also that only those men who do right can claim to be the sons of the Most High. The next verse contains a summary of the New Testament revelation of real religion: “Behold what manner of love,” etc. It is all from God’s love in Christ that we have right to be called children of God. These two words--one fulfilling the Old Testament, the other opening the riches of the New--mark the essence of real religion: righteousness and sonship. Let us first take up the Old Testament word for it. It is a solid word. The true religion is not a moral veneering of life; it is not a piece of pious ornamentation, nor an official robe drawn over an unprincipled heart. It is not an emotional substitute for conduct. The Old Testament word for religion is a word of cubic contents--righteousness, a real thing, concrete as just dealing between man and man. A present indisputable argument for belief in Moses and the prophets as holy men of old inspired of God is that they made the superhuman effort of building a nation on the Ten Commandments. They had the supernal faith to command a people to do right, and to live together in just relations in the fear of God. We do not yet dare bring our politics up to that level of the prophets. The religion which first mastered the lesson of eternal justice and made it the foundation of a state was not a faith which had sprung up of itself out of the jungle of Canaanitish superstitions. It was not found in Babylon. Assyria’s power perished for the lack of it. The true God impressed Himself upon Moses and the prophets. We know that they were the appointed bearers of a Divine revelation, and the bringers of the light, very much as we might know that a highway running up to some clear mountain height through the swamp and the underbrush at its foot was never a spontaneous freak of nature, but marks the course of some intelligent purpose. The Lord God made that way of righteousness through all the superstitions and idolatries of the nations on and up to its Messianic height. The religion of eternal righteousness is the supernal fact of history. Once gain sight of the everlasting righteousness, and nothing else seems great. Observe that the righteousness which from beginning to end the Old Testament presses for is no abstraction, but concrete, solid right-doing. The preachers of righteousness in the Old Testament faced men, and threw themselves in the name of the holy God into the thick of events. They were the fearless advocates of the oppressed; they were God’s statesmen amid the shifting politics of Jerusalem. They could flash the eternal justice into the covetous eyes of princes. Righteousness in the old testament is no scholar’s candle flickering in an attic; it is an electric light revealing the street; all classes have to pass under it and be seen. Turn now from the prophets to the New Testament. We hear ringing clear and full through the preaching of the apostles another word for the true religion. It is sonship. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God.” The essence of the New Testament is in the Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. So Jesus Himself opened the heart of the gospel toward us sinners. The grandest thing in the world for any man to do is really to live day and night, alike in the darkness or in the joy of life, as a son of the Most High God. Only one ever accomplished perfectly this task; and we for the most part do but succeed as yet in living here and there, now and then, as the children of the Father in heaven. But think a moment what it is to do this. It would signify within us a very genuine humility. In a life of sonship humility would have to be at times that conscious sense of evil or of wrongdoing which is repentance for sin. The humility of a life of filial dependence on God will become so deep and pure that no possible outward success or inward spiritual triumph will be able to cause the son of the living God to dwell in any other habit and atmosphere. Sonship, again, so far as this New Testament word for religion is realised by any of us, will free us from the haunting sense of strangeness in this world. It is not simply the mystery of things; it is the mystery of ourselves that baffles us. Death does not grow less strange from our increasing familiarity with it. All things are strange, and will grow stranger to us, unless we can discover some diviner thoughtfulness in them; unless, amid all the mystery of the universe, we shall know ourselves as God’s children, and begin on this earth to be in our hearts at home with our God. This likewise will be the mark of true sonship, and the religion of sonship--obedience, strong, cheerful obedience. The Christian sense of sonship, so far as we receive the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father, will enable us, in short, to live the simple life of trust. It is life up on the sunny heights. Trust is final spiritual mastery of things. It is perfect poise of spirit, like the poise of the eagle after it has beaten its way up against the wind into the sky, and rests circling with buoyant wings upon the sunny air. Trust is ability of soul to live happily without Divine explanation. Faith in God is willingness to wait for explanations of things. You ask for reasons why certain event, have happened to you; why any evil, such as we may meet in the street, is tolerated for a moment in a world which has a God over it; why human life has otter proved so tragic; why death reigns; why a thousand shadows fleck the light; why in short, we mortals seem to be like wanderers in a forest, where it is both dark and bright. Now, faith is not an answer to any of these inquiries; faith does not yet lead us out with the clearing, but faith is trust in the light between the shadows trust that the light is high and eternal, and the shadows only for the moment Trust is the discovery of the soul that it can live awhile without explanations, and not be disturbed. Such trust is the confidence of sonship. Now, I am aware that men who have to meet the practical urgencies of life often find it easier to come to some determination of righteousness than it is for them to let their lives be lifted up into the assurance of sonship. It is less difficult for some of you to be Old Testament worthies than it is to become New Testament saints. You love righteousness, and you hate injustice and fraud. There you are inclined to stop. It is better for anyone to live according to the righteousness of the Old Testament than not to live at all from the Bible. The seeds of the perfect life of sonship are contained in the religion of the prophets. Nevertheless, the Christ came to fulfil the righteousness of the old dispensation. The righteousness which is by faith is out full salvation. Let one’s dutiful living spring directly out of his sense of sonship, and it will become a transfigured conscientiousness. The light of love will play all through
2. To this higher life we are called. Men will finally do right toward one another when they shall learn to live together as sons of God. The present revival of right-doing will be complete when in the power of the Holy Spirit men are born anew as the children of the Father in heaven. (Newman Smyth.)
The Divine birth--the family likeness
Thefirst verses of the third chapter are to be viewed as inseparable from the last verse of the second. It is that verse which starts the new line of thought; our “knowing that God is righteous, and doing righteousness accordingly,” in virtue of our “being born of Him.” Born of Him! That is what awakens John’s grateful surprise.
I. In every view that can be taken of it, our being called the sons of God is a wonderful instance of the Father’s love.
II. And we are His children: “Beloved, now are we children of God.” Our being called children of God is a reality; our being born of God makes it so. The world may not know us in that character, for “it knows not God,” and has never known Him. Let us lay our account with having to judge and act on principles which the world cannot understand. Let us be God’s children indeed; though on that very account the world that has not known God should not know us.
III. For whatever the world may think or say, “we are the children of God,” His dear children; sharers of His Divine nature; the objects of His fatherly love. It concerns us to bear this in mind, to feel it to be true. It is our safety to do so. It is what is due to ourselves; it is what God expects, and has a right to expect from us. Let us stay ourselves on the conviction that our being God’s children is not a matter of opinion, dependent on the world’s vote, but a matter of fact, flowing from the amazing manner of love which the Father hath bestowed upon us. And let us be put, as the saying is, upon our mettle, to make good our claim to be God’s children by such a manifestation of our oneness of nature with Him of whom we are born as may, by God’s blessing, overcome some of the world’s ignorant unbelief, and lead some of the world’s children to try that manner of love for themselves, to taste and see how good the Lord is.
IV. And we are to do so all the rather because these drawbacks and disadvantages will not last long. We are only at the beginning of our life as God’s children.
1. What is set before us as matter of hope in the future life is not something different from what is to be attained, enjoyed, and improved by us, as matter of faith, and of the experience of faith in the present life.
2. When it does appear what we are to be, when that is no more hidden but disclosed, we shall be like God whose children we are as being born of Him: “for we shall see Him as He is.” The full light of all His perfection as the righteous God will open upon our view; we shall know the righteous Father as the Son knows Him. Is not this a hope “full of glory”? And is it not a hope full of holiness too? (R. S. Candlish, D. D.)
God’s adoptive love
I. First, we are arrested by the manner in which the apostle opens the subject--“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.” It is the language of adoration and wonder. Our astonishment might well be excited that God had created us that He preserved us, notwithstanding our unworthiness. But that He should adopt sinners was condescension which might well prompt the exclamation, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us.” What, then, is the manner of this love? It passeth knowledge. It was everlasting love, gratuitous love, and at the same time costly love. And then how rich the blessings procured by such love.
2. “We are called the sons of God.” It is clear this statement must be understood in a restricted sense. All are the sons of God by creation, also by providence. The text refers to a sonship peculiar to those who are the objects of redeeming love. Adoption into the family of God is singled out as evidence and effect of His love. Nor can we wonder at this selection. Think of the work that is done when the sinner is made a son of God. It is a new birth unto righteousness. The sinner is made alive unto God. Think, again, of the change that is effected in such a work. Think of the privileges of sonship. Think, finally, of the inheritance in store for them. “If children then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.”
3. The estimate formed of the privilege of sonship by the world. “Therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.” It might have been supposed that all men would applaud them as the happiest and most excellent of the children of men. But, alas! it is very different. The world does not know the sons of God. The world both disapproves and dislikes the peculiarity of the sons of God. The reason is suggested in the text. “Therefore,” saith the apostle. He had only said it was a blessed thing to be called the sons of God. Can it be, then, this is that which the world dislikes? This is clearly his meaning. Worldly men do not understand the doctrine of sonship. It is too spiritual for their perception. They scorn it as the offspring of spiritual pride. Unhappily, however, for their hot displeasure, there is an indisputable fact to prove this enmity of the world to the sons of God. It is quoted by the apostle. It is the rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ. He says of the world and of Him, “it knew Him not.” This accords with the history, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Ought this, then, to offend them? Certainly not. It ought to profit them. It should put them on their guard, that they may give no unnecessary offence. It should make them thankful they are not of the same spirit.
4. “Beloved, now are we the sons of God.” How carefully the views of the apostle are balanced in this passage. When he set forth sonship and its high privileges he annexed a caution, “the world knoweth us not,” lest any might be disappointed and injured. So again after he had given that caution he reassures them of the reality and continuance of their blessedness, “Now are we the sons of God.” This might be rendered necessary by the dark suspicions of their own minds. They found much within them contrary to what they could desire or might expect. Let them not be cast down. Or it might be rendered necessary by the conduct of others towards them. They might find themselves suspected and evil entreated. Through it all let them remember they are still the sons of God. Nor should they forget what was required of them as such. “Only let your conversation be as becometh the gospel of Christ.” “Walk worthy of your high vocation.” So living they might enjoy the sweet consciousness that, let the world do or say as they might, they could appropriate the assuring words, “Now are we the sons of God.”
5. Their thoughts are directed to the future. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.”
6. “Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself even as He is pure.” (J. Morgan, D. D.)
Adopting love of the Father
I. Look at the result or purpose of this love, and we shall be the better prepared to understand its “manner.” What “manner” of love is this, in transforming those who were once so unlike Him? Love prompted Him to adopt them; and after they are adopted He has peculiar delight in them. What “manner” of love is this, that the fallen should at length have a place in His bosom which the unfallen can never occupy! Still more, a glorious destiny awaits them. When the years of minority are expired the children are taken home to the household on high, where the whole family form one unbroken and vast assemblage. The extraordinary love of the Father is also seen in the entire circuit of discipline which has been arranged for His children. And will not such a child be content in any circumstances? What is good for him his Father will give him. As much of temporal blessing will he get as he can improve.
II. The singularity of the Divine affection.
1. And first, the love that leads a man to call a child his own, which is not his by natural descent, has not such a “manner” about it. For when among men a child is adopted, it is usually because the adopter thinks it worthy of his regard; because there is something in its features or character that pleases him. But no such motive could prompt the Divine affection, for we are utterly lost and loathsome before Him.
2. Again, if one adopts a child, it is commonly because himself is childless, or his hearth may have been desolated by war or disease. He longs to have some object near him on which to expend his attachment. But Jehovah had myriads of a flourishing progeny--uncounted hosts of bright intelligences, who have never disobeyed Him. But the present condition of the sons of God is veiled and incomplete. “Therefore,” the apostle adds, “the world knoweth us not, because it knew Him not.” The mission of the Son of God was spiritual, was too ethereal for the coarse vision of the world to detect, or its sordid heart to admire. Its great ones, and not its good ones, divide among themselves the world’s homage. Not that the world is able to ignore Christianity. But it admires it not for itself but for its splendid results--for the beneficial effects, in the form of patriotism and philanthropy, which it has produced. It is not Wilberforce the saint, but Wilberforce the queller of the slave trade, that men admire. The dignity and prospects of the sons of God are not of a secular and visible nature. “The world knoweth them not.” But should this ignorance on the part of the world dispirit you? By no means. Your case is not solitary. It did not recognise the Son of God. “Now are we the sons of God.” Despite of this non-recognition on the part of the world, we are the sons of God. The reality of our adoption is not modified by the world’s oblivion of it. It may be undiscovered by others, but our own experience gives ourselves the full assurance of it. But noble as is our present condition, our ultimate dignity surpasses conception. “It doth not yet appear what we shall be.” Even though we now revel in the Divine favour, yet such transcendent felicity is scarcely a premiss to reason from as to the glory of our ultimate heritage. There is so much about us that clogs and confines us--so deep is the shadow that earth throws over the children of God that any inference as to coming freedom and glory is all but an impossibility. Such being the present eclipse of our sonship, there is the less wonder that “the world knoweth us not.” Their aim is to be as like Him as they can be here, in the hope that they shall be perfectly like Him hereafter. (John Eadie, D. D.)
The manner of love bestowed upon us
I. The manner of love which the Father hath bestowed upon us.
1. Sovereign in its exercise.
2. Gracious in its communication.
3. Merciful in its regards.
4. Everlasting in its continuance.
II. The consequences which flow to us from that love.
1. Present adoption into God’s family.
2. Future restoration to His image.
III. The attention with which the whole should be regarded.
1. Your attention should deepen your humility.
2. Your attention should strengthen your confidence.
3. Your attention should excite your affection. (W. Mudge, B. A.)
The present relationship and future prospects of the faithful
I. The Christian’s present state is one of relationship to God. It implies--
4. It entitles us to a glorious inheritance.
II. The circumstances of his future life are in a great measure unknown to him.
III. We have, nevertheless, sufficient knowledge of that future to make us happy in the present. (H. P. Bower.)
The wonderful love of God as displayed in human redemption
I. The unworthiness of its objects.
II. The expensiveness of the sacrifice.
III. The variety and vastness of the blessings secured to us through this adopting love.
IV. This love is to be to us a subject of meditation. “Behold.”
1. Admire it.
2. Trust in it.
3. Extol it.
4. Believe it. (W. Lloyd.)
What manner of love
Here, you notice, that although St. John had been learning more and more about the love of God all his days, he does not trust himself to characterise it. I believe throughout eternity we shall never find the right word for it. Even if we think that we have made some such grand discovery as to present it to us in an altogether new light, we shall still go on discovering that there is more to be said about it. Mark, the love spoken of here is the love of the Father. This text takes us right back to the source from which all other blessings flow. That word “Father!”--there is scarcely a heart in which there does not seem to be awakened something like a sympathetic thrill at the sound--even those who are most estranged from God by sin and wicked works. Does it not answer to an inward yearning of our human hearts? Orphans are we, and desolate, unless we know that within the veil we have One who not only bears a Father’s name but possesses a Father’s heart. Now observe, this love is represented as being definitely bestowed, with a view to a specific end, and that end is in order that we might be called the sons of God. We might hay, Deer called the sons of God in the sense of creation, without any such love being bestowed upon us, without any gift being made. There was no particular difficulty in our being placed in such a position; indeed, as an historical fact, we are His offspring. Nor, again, was there any special difficulty in the way of His adopting a certain ecclesiastical relationship to us, standing to us in the relation of Father to an ecclesiastical theocracy, which He Himself established; there was no difficulty in that. But in order that He might stand in the relationship indicated to us in this sense, as “our Father,” and put us in the position indicated by the word “son” in this passage, it was necessary that He should make such a manifestation of His love towards us as He has made in the Incarnation. Now we pass on to consider this special relationship, and the first thought that strikes me is this, that in order theft you and I might attain to it the love of God had first of all to surmount a stupendous difficulty. There was a question which God represents Himself as putting to Himself, and that question is, “How shall I set thee amongst the children?” Oh, you say, by an act of God’s sovereign power. But an act of God’s sovereign power would not make us real children of His. The child partakes of the nature of his parent. Now, we have lost the nature of our spiritual Parent, we have inherited the nature of our earthly parent: the old Adam. We come into the world with an hereditary taint of rebellion against God. How many of us there are who, from our earliest days, have gone on living consistently with this start. Now, under those circumstances, how can God put us amongst the children? If God were to say to one of you, “You are My child,” would that make you His child unless He were first to perform a moral miracle upon you? Now, God performs moral miracles, but He does it in a particular way. He so performs the miracle that in the actual performance of it our will shall be consciously cooperating with Him. “How shall I set thee among the children?” The answer is given in the gift of the Lord Jesus Christ. There was only one way in which the love of God could achieve this marvellous result. It was to be done by a gift--the gift of Incarnate Love. What do we know about the love of God? I see it revealed in the human form of Jesus. What is that love of God like? I apprehend its character by gazing into the face of Jesus. What is it that the love of God actually does achieve? It achieves its very end, it achieves the end of bringing me, poor, guilty rebel as I am, into a filial relationship with God; enabling me to look up into God’s face and say, “Thank God, I now am a child of God.” How is this done? It is done by a new birth. How is this birth to be elected? “Ye must be born again.” But how am I to pass from the old life into this new life of God? I am “born not of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of the will of God.” How am I born? By complying with that will, by surrendering myself to the revealed love of God in the person of Christ. If at some great cost some boon which you very much require is brought within your reach, and if you spurn it, I venture to say it is impossible to cut your benefactor more to the heart than by such a line of conduct. Now, then, are you called a child of God? Does God call you so? Is it so? If not, why not? Don’t say that God has made it so difficult. Do you think it probable that God should refuse the very boon which He has given His Son in order to bestow? (A. H. M. H. Aitken.)