Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous:II.
(4) The third idea that arises from the great fact that God is Light has already been suggested (1John 1:7), but now takes its distinct place in the series. It is the doctrine of Reconciliation and Redemption. St. John does not wish them to contemplate with complacency the probability of sinning; but to remember gratefully, in spite of falls, that the Author and Restorer of Light has provided a remedy both for the offence before God, and for its effect on themselves. First comes the principle that we must not sin; second, the admission that we do sin; third, the consolation for actual sin when it is in spite of sincere zeal for sanctification.
(1) My little children.—Six times in the letter occurs this diminutive of tender and caressing love: 1John 2:12; 1John 2:28; 1John 3:18; 1John 4:4; 1John 5:21. He was aged, he felt a fatherly care for them, he was their spiritual progenitor. (Comp. Galatians 4:9.) The thought of the shame and misery of sin melted his heart. “My child” was what he called out to the lapsed youth, according to Eusebius (H. E. iii. 23).
These things.—He carries them on through the former points up to the new thought.
That ye sin not.—Another side of the object of the teaching: their joy could not be full unless they were earnest against sin. And yet the most holy would not be perfect.
If any man sin.—See 1John 1:8-10.
We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.—The word here translated Advocate was translated Comforter in John 14:16; John 14:25; John 15:26; John 16:7. It has two meanings; one, as in Job 16:2, he who comforts, or exhorts; the other, as here, he who is appealed to—a proxy, or attorney. (Comp. Romans 8:26; Hebrews 4:14-16; Hebrews 7:25.) The Redeemer, the Word made flesh, and reascended with His human nature, is that part of the Deity which assures us of the ever-active vitality of divine love. If the justice of God is connected most with the Father, the mercy is pledged by the Son. He has exalted our nature, undertaken our interests, presents our prayers, and will one day be surrounded by the countless millions of His human brothers whom He has rescued, wearing the same nature as Himself. He is represented as continuing our advocate, because otherwise His work might appear a mere separate earthly manifestation; “righteous,” because Christ, the only blameless example of human nature, can alone intercede for it with God (Hebrews 7:26; 1Peter 3:18; John 16:8-10). The Armenian translation actually adds “and blameless.” Augustine remarks that St. John did not set forth any apostle or saint as intercessor (here, if anywhere, he would have done so), but only Christ. “We” is not the Church corporately, but merely another instance of St. John’s kindly delicacy, as in 1John 1:6, &c.
(2) And he is the propitiation for our sins.—On the word “propitiation,” see the Introduction. By the satisfaction which the voluntary sacrifice of the Saviour offered to that divine order which requires the punishment of rebellion, both for its own correction and for a universal warning, the whole Deity has been rendered propitious, His graciousness has been called out, the righteousness of Romans 3:16 has been set in motion, that willeth not the death of a sinner, and is higher than mere retributive justice. (Comp. 1John 4:10; John 14:5-6; 1Corinthians 1:30; 2Corinthians 5:18; 2Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 9:28; Hebrews 10:20; 1Peter 2:21-24.)
And not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.—This statement must not be limited. Its scope is that Christ’s redemption was offered for the whole of mankind, from Adam to the last man. Who lay hold of the redemption, must be determined on other considerations. (Comp. 1John 4:14; John 1:29; John 4:42.) Multitudes may be saved through this redemption who never heard of Christ (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:14-15). St. John’s object in introducing this truth here is to rebuke the arrogance of those Christians who looked down on the non-Christian world as outside the Fatherhood and mercies of God. Such an error might be seen, for example, in the heated partisanship of a Crusader or persecutor for a civilisation politically Christian against one outside his own sympathies. (Comp. Titus 3:2-7; Romans 11:17-18.)
And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.(5) The fourth inference from the doctrine that God is Light analyses more accurately the general expression of 1John 1:7, walking in the light. If Christ is, as in 1John 2:1-2, the Paraclete and Propitiation of the world, it becomes necessary to ascertain whether He is this to us; lest, when this salvation is offered, we condemn ourselves by rejecting it. The test is, “obedience to the commandments, especially in brotherly love.”
(3) Hereby means, by what follows.
That we know him.—Rather, have known Him (so also in 1John 2:4, I have known Him); that we have not grasped a shadow, but have been in intercourse with the living God, who reveals Himself not through speculation, but through a true inward life of man.
If we keep his commandments.—Christ’s—because of the reference to John 14:15. “Keep” like a precious heirloom, watching them against the inroads of our lower nature. (Comp. Matthew 19:17; Matthew 28:20; 1Timothy 6:14.) If each man’s conscience was the standard of practice, confusion would again reign in morals as it reigned in the days of the Sophists at Athens. (Compare Plato’s Republic, Bk. 2, Jowett’s translation.) A code and an example fitted for all times and all circumstances have been given by our Lord.
(4) He that saith . . .—In particularising the general proposition according to his custom, St. John rejects the first person plural as shocking, unreal, and artificial, and throws the blasphemy on some third person. So “is a liar” is stronger than “we lie,” and “we deceive ourselves;” in such a case the lie has entered thoroughly into the man’s nature.
(5) But whoso keepeth his word.—The revelation of the will of God, looked at as a whole.
In him verily is the love of God perfected.—St. John has before his mind an ideal of a man so filled with the Spirit that in all things he embodies the will of God; the love that such a man has for God is indeed complete. But he knows that the best of the human race can only approach such an ideal in different degrees, at a great distance; and the perfection of the love which they bear to God will vary in the same degree. (Comp. 1John 2:15; 1John 3:17; 1John 4:12; 1John 5:3.) “In him verily;” rather, Truly in him. It is most emphatic, and refers back “the truth is not in him,” in 1John 2:4.
Hereby know we that we are in him.—Comp. 1John 2:3 and 1John 1:6; without such a test there Could be no happiness in religion. “In him” implies that we are saved by His grace, surrounded by His love, inspired by His thoughts, partakers of His nature, filled by His Spirit, the dwelling-place of the Father and the Son, with certain access to the divine throne and certain answer to prayer, heirs of the heavenly kingdom.
(6) Ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.—Abiding in Him—in Christ—is an evident reference to John 15:4-11. In the terms of 1John 2:3-5 there is a double gradation: on the one hand, knowing Him, being in Him, remaining in Him; on the other, keeping His commandments, keeping His word, walking even as He walked. The last expression is the strongest of the latter three, as it views the Christian in action. The walk of Christ was the walk in the light (comp. 1John 1:7); divine love the secret spring developing itself in a new virtue for every variety of circumstance. In 1John 2:7-11 brotherly love is introduced as the special manifestation of this obedience that springs from the walk in the light. At a superficial glance it might have been thought that the personal address introduced a new paragraph; it is really only like the “Verily, verily,” of our Lord, breaking in to emphasize a message to be brought directly home to the hearts of the readers. The life of obedience, the walk in light, is nothing else but the life of brotherly love: “This is my commandment, that ye love one another” (John 15:12; comp. also John 13:34-35).
(7) I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning—i.e., “I am preparing to give you a special direction, which has been implied already by the walk in light. If you look at it from the point of view of your first entrance into Christ’s kingdom it is old, because it was the chief point of His moral teaching which you then heard. If you look at its effect in you it is new, because (1) it had never been taught so forcibly and clearly before Christ; (2) you are so imperfect that you are always liable to forget it; (3) your obedience to the command can never be complete, but will always require fresh growth; (4) it can never be permanent without continual renewal by Christ’s presence.” “Ye” is therefore his present Christian audience; “from the beginning” implies the time of their conversion; “the word” is here less wide than in 1John 2:6, and means rather Christ’s teaching on this point. (Comp. 2John 1:5; Leviticus 19, Leviticus 18:24.)
(8) Which thing is true in him and in you.—The commandment might have hung in the air and remained “old,” i.e., confined to the definite point of time of its promulgation, had it not been embodied for ever (1) in the living example of Christ during His life on earth; (2) in His active presence and power since His resurrection; (3) in the conduct and character of His people, radically renewed by His Spirit and continually growing after His image. (Comp. 1John 3:23; John 13:34.)
Because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth.—Rather, is passing away; already shineth. Here he gives the reason why he announces as new what he says is already truly realised in Christ and in process of realisation in His people. A visible change, a notable renovation, is going on; the gross darkness that covered the face of the earth is being rent away in the circle of the apostolic preaching; the life of the Lord, which gleamed forth for three-and-thirty years in the cities and on the hill-sides of Judæa and Samaria and Galilee, is now bursting far and wide into ever-increasing brightness; wondrously quick is the spread of the rays of His glory; multitudes in every known land are gathered into His kingdom. Old things are passing away as the Apostle looks round, and all things are becoming new. (Comp. John 1:4-9; Romans 13:12; Ephesians 5:8; 1Thessalonians 5:4-5.)
He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.(6) Here (1John 2:9-11) is the chief way in which the old commandment, the new commandment, the word from the beginning, the walk in light would be manifested: brotherly love towards those with whom we have fellowship in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And as He, by being the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, had declared the universality of God’s family and kingdom, so the sympathy of believers would extend in different degrees as far as the whole human race; to those first who were conscious of the same hopes as themselves; to those next who might be brought to share them; to those, perhaps, in a less degree, who in every nation feared God and worked righteousness without knowing the Saviour personally; and so on, finally, to all who did not wilfully excommunicate themselves. But the brotherly love would be chiefly amongst Christian friends, else it would be diffused into nothingness.
(9) He that saith . . .—The whole history of religious rancour has been a deplorable illustration of these words. Controversy for principles honestly and reasonably held is one thing: prejudice, spite, private censures and condemnations, harsh words, suspicions, jealousies, misunderstandings and misrepresentations are the chief props of the kingdom of darkness among Christian churches and nations. (Comp. John 13:34; John 15:12; 1Corinthians 13:2; 1Peter 1:22; 2Peter 1:7-9.)
Hateth means not merely the absence of love, but the presence, in ever so small a degree, of dislike or any of the feelings already described, or those kindred to them.
(10) He that loveth.—From the associations connected with love in poetry and romance this saying sounds strange. But all such love is tinged with passion, and the desire of satisfying some personal lack; this is the pure disinterested seeking for another’s welfare, of which Christ was the great example. It is that which the modern scientific non-Christian world is trying to make its religion; but without the Christian motive, and cultivated for its own sake instead of by the working of the Spirit of God, it seems artificial and powerless.
Occasion of stumbling.—Stumbling - blok. (Comp. Isaiah 8:14; Isaiah 28:16; Psalm 119:165; John 11:9-10; Romans 9:33; Romans 14:13; 1Corinthians 1:23; 1Peter 2:7.) When love such as Christ’s is the ruling principle of life, then the stumbling-blocks of human nature are removed—such as impurity, pride, selfishness, anger, envy, suspicion, unsympathetic coldness, censoriousness.
(11) But he that hateth.—1John 2:10 was an antithesis to 1John 2:9; 1John 2:11 is, after St. John’s manner, an antithesis again to 1John 2:10, putting the matter of 1John 2:9 more strongly and fully, and forcibly concluding the section which describes the walk in the light.
Walketh in darkness.—This describes the acts of the man whose selfishness or other sins interfere with his love. Such are all insisting upon class distinctions; all ambitions, political, social, or personal; everything that savours of shrinking from “in honour preferring one another.”
Knoweth not whither he goeth.—This refers to the “occasion of stumbling” in 1John 2:10. He is sure to stumble; is like a blind man groping his way among pitfalls; has all the snares of human nature within him. (Comp. Isaiah 6:9 et seq.; Matthew 13:14 et seq.; John 12:40; Acts 28:26; 2Corinthians 4:4.)
Hath blinded.—Just as it is we ourselves who make the gate strait and the way narrow, so it is our own fault if the darkness settles down on our eyes.
I write unto you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name's sake.(7) THE THINGS THEY MUST NOT LOVE IF THEY WALKED IN THE LIGHT (1John 2:12-17).—The solemnity of the thoughts of 1John 2:9; 1John 2:11 is too much for the warm heart of the Apostle. He cannot bear even to seem to suggest that his “dear little children” are shrouded in the gloomy horrors of moral darkness, haunted by the faithful memories of their sins, and enticed hither and thither by the malevolent spirits of evil. He will warn them with the most tender and pitiful affection against the wicked one, the world, the flesh, the follies and vanities of the human heart; but first he will show them frankly what he thinks of them, what he hopes of them, the trust he places in them, the grounds which he takes for granted in writing to them.
(12) I write unto you, little children.—The arrangement of these triplets should be prefaced by saying that the last “I write,” in 1John 2:13, is, according to the best reading, “I wrote,” or “I have written;” and that the “little children” of 1John 2:12 is the same word as that which he used in 1John 2:1 for the whole class of his readers, and is therefore quite general, but that the “little children” of 1John 2:13 is a different, word, meaning children in age. So we get:—
1.Children in age. [Suggested, according to the perfect simplicity of St. John’s style, by the term used in the first set for his readers generally.]
1.Knowledge of the Father.
2.Knowledge of Christ.
2.Knowledge of Christ.
3.Strength, perseverance, victory.
Some have thought the second triplet an explanatory note that has crept into the text; others that “I write refers to what he is doing at the moment, “I wrote” the view they would take when they read what he had written. It seems better, however, if we allow the Gospel to have been written first, to refer “I am writing” to the Epistle; “I did write” to the Gospel.
Because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake.—Rather, have been forgiven. When Christ expired on the cross, the sins of all were forgiven who should in after-time believe and carry on their repentance towards perfection. The process is realised in the soul when it wakes up to a sense of love of the Saviour through faith.
(13) Fathers.—The heads of families.
Him that is from the beginning.—There can be little doubt that this means the same Person as the subject of “His name’s sake.” (Comp. John 1:1; John 8:58; John 17:5; Knowledge of Christ is assigned in both cases as the reason for addressing the elder members of his audience, because fully to understand the work, the doctrine, the example of Christ, is a work fitted for mature thought. (Comp. 1Corinthians 3:1-2.)
Young men.—They might be regarded more as still engaged in the work of settling their character, forming their habits, disciplining their inclinations, confirming the choice which all must make for themselves between good and evil. (Comp. 2Timothy 2:22.) St. John is not here addressing those who have failed in the struggle and not repented, but those who have got the better of such temptations, or are in process of getting it.
(14) Because ye have known.—To those who have once begun to understand Christ, the topic must always be delightful and interesting.
Because ye are strong.—For the reasons mentioned before, young men have more special need of strength. (Comp. Psalm 119:9.) This power can only come through the presence of the message and teaching of God in their hearts, which will be brought by faith in Christ, acceptance of His redemption, and reverential study of His example. When Christ has thus dwelt in their minds, then the victory is won, and the spirits of evil can no longer entice them.
(15) Love not the world.—Having thus affectionately expressed his hopes about each class of them, the last of the Apostles is freer to express that warning which was suggested to his mind by the mournful picture of 1John 2:11. If they would not walk in darkness—if they would be where the true Light shineth—then they must not love the world. What does “the world” mean? In Acts 17:24 it meant the universe; in John 1:9, perhaps more distinctly, the earth; in 1John 2:2 the sum total of mankind; in John 8:23 that moral order, to be found in this spot of creation, which is antagonistic to God. Thus it became a phrase for all such inventions, plans, customs, thoughts, and estimates of mankind as are not in harmony with the will and purpose of God. It is ridiculous to suppose that St. John intended to condemn the love either of natural philosophy; or of the scenery of that creation which God saw to be very good, and which sin has been unable to injure; or of all mankind, who are His children. No created thing is evil in itself; the evil lies in the use which man makes of it. We must remember that our Lord said, “I am the Light of the World” (John 8:12), so that none of the phases of the meaning of the word can be essentially evil, except where it implies man’s own ungodly creations. The world which is not to be loved is the sphere of rebellion, caprice, ambition, vanity, pride, avarice, forgetfulness of God, self-pleasing, sensuous desires and interests, connivance with standards of thought and action antagonistic to the will of God. To take one example: Christ declared all Christians brothers; any respect for rank and wealth beyond a conscientious “bowing in the house of Rimmon” is a sign of the forbidden affection.
The love of the Father is the true posture of the soul towards God. If the soul is evenly balanced between love of God and of the world it is negative and colourless. If the balance incline towards the things that distract from the pure and simple walk with God, then the emotion for Him has died away; if the balance be for Him, “the expulsive power of the new affection” makes the contrary attractions insignificant and increasingly powerless.
(16) All that is in the world.—The essence, the kernel of this sphere showing itself in countless ways.
The lust of the flesh—i.e., that proceeds from the earthly nature; all desire taking possession of the soul as a motive for thought and action which does not arise from principles in harmony with the will of God.
The lust of the eyes—i.e., of which the eyes are the seat; all delight in objects living or inanimate apart from their moral and religious importance; personal beauty, for instance, considered otherwise than as an index of a Christ-like soul. (Comp. John 7:24; John 8:15; 2Corinthians 5:16; James 2:1.) Our Lord’s, introspection was of moral qualities in Mark 10:21.
The pride of life.—The Greek word is only used besides in the New Testament in James 4:16. The phrase means a boastful, ostentatious attitude in regard to the good things of this life allotted by God to be spent in His service. All living up to a supposed social position instead of as the responsible steward of undeserved bounties, is hereby condemned. Of this any social organism existing for pleasure instead of for moral or religious ends might be considered illustrative.
(17) The world passeth away.—No reasonable man can set his affections on what is in its very essence perishable; for the perishable must be ever disappointing, and can in no sense satisfy. It is only passion, and the madness of folly, and the contagion of accumulated examples, that influence the soul towards what can only create the agonising ache of a growing void.
And the lust thereof.—Of all the long succession of impulses excited by the world, nothing remains but the injury which they have inflicted.
But he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.—There is no permanence but that of defeat and failure in what is in rebellion to the Supreme Author and Ruler of all things. But that which has continuously derived all its sustenance from Him, must have absorbed from Him the “bright shoots” of that “everlastingness” which is His. Everything that is good is a part of Him, and can no more fade than He can. It is by being in harmony with this undeviating tendency of righteousness to victory that real happiness discovers its own secret. (Comp. John 10:28-29; 1Corinthians 7:31; James 1:10; 1Peter 1:24.)