When the Apostle John penned 1 John 3:1 he was not naive about the experiences of life. Christians facing the world in the Apostle John’s day would have been cruel and barbaric. John himself had been imprisoned on the Isle of Patmos; he had faced suffering for being a Christian pastor! John’s eulogizing over God’s love did not result from being a free citizen of the state, or the recipient of the wonderful things of God’s nature – or because he enjoyed a fat state pension provided by the Roman Empire!
Despite all the hurts and pains of life he and his parishioners experienced, they had the assurance of their special, status. As followers of Jesus, they may have been considered outcasts of society in their day. Yet in this letter John reminded his parishioners of their special status, they were, the “children of God.”
That was how John saw himself. In his younger days John had been a hot-tempered teenager. He even appealed to Jesus on one occasion to bring fire down from heaven to consume a whole community who had offended Jesus (Luke 9; 51-56). Not just men, but women and children too! Burn them up Lord!
But now, writing this epistle, he could recall how Jesus had been very patient towards him, despite what he had been. I get encouragement from that! Despite what I might have been, when I seek forgiveness and give myself over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, I take my identity as a “child of God”! All His doing, not mine!
Thinking of John’s experience, it’s marvelous how people’s attitudes can change through the power of the Holy Spirit. When I think of Christian adoption agencies I think of the George Muller orphanages at Ashley Down in Bristol. More than 10,000 orphans passed through his homes. And he didn’t solicit for one penny to build those homes. But he began life as a rascal. He loved going to bars, drinking, gambling and being the life of the party. His stealing got him thrown in prison on one occasion. He just had no interest in God as a young man, until a friend invited him to a Bible study and prayer meeting; it changed his life, and the lives of over 10,000 homeless children who came under his care.
But that is the power of the Gospel! By having his attention drawn to Jesus, things happened to him, and within him. That is the thing about Jesus, by beholding Him, dwelling on what he has done for us, we become changed: as we sing in that popular hymn, “Heir of salvation; purchase of God, born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.”
And it happened to John! Overcome by the power of the cross, and witness to the resurrection of Jesus, John found himself open to the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul expresses it this way, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We can’t explain the “New Birth” experience, but we know it happens. Jesus said, “Unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5-8). That is why John was able to talk about himself as “a child of God.” That is why he could talk about the love of God. You can’t do that convincingly, if you are not “born again” through the Holy Spirit!
The “New Birth” experience is the most powerful argument for the existence of God. It is not intellectual argument. Philosophy or science or archaeological discoveries may help in pointing to the Bible as a credible witness for the existence of God. And the Bible is important for that life-changing experience (1 Peter 1:23). But, the most powerful witness for God is the person who is “born again,” by the Holy Spirit. And in the last days of his life, this aged pastor appeals to his parishioners not to forget that. “Behold”, he says, “What manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us that we should be called the children of God.”
Despite all we have been, this is what God calls us to be, His children. When we confess our sins (1 John 1:9) and accept His forgiveness, he wipes the slate clean of all our sins and failures; we become His children. Isn’t that something to think about this Easter?
Everyone in the world is one of God’s creatures. But not every one can be called a child of God. That is an invitation that has to be personally accepted. John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him, should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Whoever believes in Jesus; whoever trusts in Him; whoever can honestly call Him Lord, and want to know more of Him from His Word – they are called, “children of God.”
This is how we can measure if we are children of God. It is described for us in the last verses of this chapter in 1 John 3, beginning at verse 23: “And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in Him, and He in them. And this is how we know He lives in us: We know it by the Spirit He gave us” (cf., Romans 8:16).
To accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and to be obedient to Him and His Word, is the first main and obvious aspect of being “born again” by the work of the Holy Spirit. The other is to love one another as He commanded us. That is the evidence that we are the children of God (John 14:15-17; 15:9-15).
It is not through any personal achievement or work of our own that we are made the children of God. It is the gift of God’s grace imparted to us through the work of the Holy Spirit.
God’s generosity towards us, and the privilege of becoming His children came about through great cost on God’s part (John 3:16). We may think the world has been hurt, and so it has. But over the Easter period in particular we can reflect on how God became involved in that pain too! It cost Jesus His life when He became our great Substitute! He died a cruel death, death on a cross. His death gave you and me the opportunity to become children of God (Romans 6:23).
And so for the Apostle John, that unselfish, unconditional love of Jesus was powerful! His values changed. His attitudes changed. His behaviour changed. It’s amazing! He saw other people in a different light. He was no longer indifferent to those who didn’t think and believe as he did. He certainly no longer wanted to go around accusing and abusing them, or wanting to call hell fire down to consume them. He began to see others as God saw them: “God so loved the world”! And ourselves? Through God’s grace we will want to treat even our enemies as God has treated us. As the Apostle Paul put it, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God’s generosity towards us is life-changing; people are important to Jesus, so people become important to His followers. The concentration on self diminishes. We want others to come to know Jesus too, to know what He accomplished for us on that cross 2000 years ago, that we might all be saved in His eternal kingdom (John 3:16), all by the forgiving and all-embracing grace of God and through the Lord Jesus Christ (Roman 6:23).