1 John 3:1-10
3:1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
Whenever your kids are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even Almighty God, all-knowing God, all-powerful God has had his share of problems “controlling” his children. After creating Heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. And one of the the first things He said to them was: “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit,” God said.
“Forbidden fruit? We got forbidden fruit? Hey, Eve…we got Forbidden Fruit!”
“Don’t eat that fruit!” said God.
“Because I’m your Creator and I said so!” said God. A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and was angry. “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?” God asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?”
“I dunno,” Eve answered.
“She started it!” Adam said.
Having had it with the two of them, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. And I know that some of us have had parents say to them “I hope that one day you have children just like you to show you what you have put me through.”
Children are a blessing, but I think it is safe to say that sometimes they can cause us a few headaches and gray hairs. Maybe that is why God is usually depicted as an old gray-haired man. Where do you think that those gray hairs came from? God’s children causing stress!
Our scripture for this morning is a tough one to understand, and I don’t pretend to have it all figured out myself. There is a good chance that none of us, myself included, will be content with the way I have tried to understand this scripture. But, as I hope to show in this message, I think that God is more interested in us trying to understand him and trying to do the things that he has called us to do than He is of us getting God right (if that is even a possibility).
So today I hope to unpack this phrase “Child of God” and better understand what John was getting at when he wrote this letter to other Christians. I hope to address the questions “Who is a child of God”, “Who is not a child of God”, and “How are children of God to live?”
Who is a child of God?
The scripture begins by saying, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” I hope that we all understand that God loves us. God loves you, God loves me, God loves each and everyone one of us.
God loves us with a love that we cannot understand. God loves us, not because of what we have done or will do for him. God loves us because we are his and have been his since before the beginning of time. God loves us because we were created by God in God’s own image. And because God loves us, the author of 1st John says that we are called children of God. That is the reason given to us in verse 1 for why we are called children of God, simply because of the love of God.
Now obviously we are not all literally God’s children. I have a biological father and mother who not only gave me life, but also raised me for the first 18-20 years of my life. And as I near my 30th year, they continue to give me love and support. And I expect that they will continue to do so as long as they have the mental capacity to do so.
When John calls us children of God he is using a linguistic tool known as a metaphor. We use a metaphor when we take something that is unfamiliar to us and compare it to something that is familiar to us to better understand the original unfamiliar thing. Jesus used metaphors all the time. He called himself a shepherd, the way, and the bread of life, among other things. So he is taking something that people really don’t understand (himself) and comparing it to something that they do understand (ie bread). So since we really don’t understand the relationship between God and us, John compares our relationship to God to that of a Father to his children.
I think that those of us that don’t have children can’t understand this metaphor fully. But those who are parents can better relate to the love that God has for his metaphorical children. Why do you love your children? Is it because they always obey you? Is it because they are always good? If that was the case, I can’t imagine that my parents would love me. But yet they do. Not because of what I have done, but because I am their creation, I bear their image.
That is why God loves us, everyone one of us. Regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of our behavior, regardless even of our religion, God loves us all equally because we bear his image. God made us and pronounced us “exceedingly good”.
Who is not a child of God?
But our scripture for this morning doesn’t say that everyone is a child of God, only those who are without sin. Beginning in verse 4, “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” Verse 6, “No one who abides in him sins…” Verses 7-8, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil…” And it is all summed up in verse 10, “The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”
So if we are all children of God as people created in God’s image, what is the deal with John telling us that some people are children of God and some are children of the devil? I think this goes to show us that sometimes metaphors break down.
As I said earlier, Jesus calls himself the bread of life. And during the last supper, he tells his disciples to eat of his body and drink of his blood. This is language that we continue to use today in the church when we take communion.
But Jesus wasn’t really made of bread. This is what we call a metaphor breaking down. A metaphor is an illustration, not a factual statement. And since a metaphor is not a factual statement, it does not always make sense when we try to apply the metaphor to something else.
The way I like to look at our relation to God is by using the story that Jesus tells that is found in Luke chapter 15, which again is packed full of metaphors. Jesus tells the story of two sons. The younger of the two sons tells his father that he wants his share of the inheritance early, and for some reason the father does as the younger son demands. The younger son then liquidates his assets and travels, spends his money loosely, and finds himself broken and busted. When reality and hunger pangs hit, the younger son tries to make a living as a servant to the locals while his father and his older son stay back and tend to what is left of their farm. Finally the younger son makes the decision to return to his father, apologize for all that he has done, and try to get a decent job working for his father. The younger son even plans what he will say when he sees his father. He will say, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
When the younger son returns to his father’s farm he is greeted by a jubilant father. And even though the son tries to give his prepared speech, the father says forget about that. Let’s celebrate! “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
Now let me ask you, at what point did the younger son stop being the son of the father? The younger son did say that he was no longer worthy to be called the son of the father, but when did he actually stop being the son of the father? Never! He never stopped being the son of the father. Granted, there was a time when the father felt like his youngest son was dead, but never does he ever say that the younger son stopped being his son.
I think that the same is true for us as God’s children. Never do we stop being God’s children. But sometimes we more closely resemble the son that stayed with the father and other times we more closely resemble the prodigal son. And just as we learn in the story of the prodigal son, neither of the father’s sons are perfect.
How are children of God to live?
So we come back to the scripture from 1st John where we are told that everyone that commits sin is a child of the devil (vs. 8). And vs. 9, “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” If we take this verse literally, who then is a child of God and who is a child of the devil. I have to admit, I’m a child of the devil by this definition. It tells us in verse 9 that if we have been born of God that we cannot sin. Guess what…I can sin, and I do sin. And if you claim that you don’t sin, you’re a liar. And to lie is to sin. So we are all children of the devil. Each and everyone of us because each and everyone of us is a sinner.
Some people have tried to make this section of scripture easier to understand by saying that it is referring to living a life of sin, not simply committing a sinful act. And the NIV makes it a little easier by saying that the one that does what is sinful is a child of the devil. But my NRSV and the King James seem to say that if you commit a sin you are a child of the devil.
I believe that what we are seeing here is another linguistic device employed by John as he is writing this letter. First we saw the metaphor, now we find something that we call hyperbole. Hyperbole is overstating something to make a point. This would be like me saying, “I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything all day.” When in reality I just am hungry and it has been a few hours since breakfast.
We see Jesus using hyperbole in Matthew 5:48 when he tells his listeners to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Does Jesus really expect human beings to be perfect? I sure hope not. If he did, we would all be in trouble, just as we would all be in a lot of trouble if anyone that commits a sin is truly a child of the devil.
Now don’t hear me saying that just because Jesus and John are using hyperbole that we aren’t really supposed to try to be perfect and to live without sin. Just because I use hyperbole when I say that I am starving and haven’t had anything to eat all day doesn’t mean that I really don’t want a sandwich right about now. This isn’t meant to be Jesus or John saying, “It really isn’t possible so don’t even try to be perfect or to not sin.” Just the opposite is true.
God knows that we will fail to live up to his perfect example set for us in Jesus. But he has called us to try. Author Philip Yancey tells a number of stories in his book Church: Why Bother that help to illustrate this point.
Yancey says that every parent knows the risk of asking something of their child that they cannot do. That task is simply to walk. The anxious parent sits back and watches their child attempt to stand by hanging onto pieces of furniture and then finally letting go, only to fall to the ground. The parent must continue to sit back and watch the child struggle to its feet and attempt the task all over again. Because no one has discovered a better way to learn how to walk (pg 98-99).
Trying, even though we are destined to fail, to stumble and fall, is the only way that we can learn. Even when the ultimate goal, perfection, is unattainable, God still wants us to try. And many people have learned to walk with the Lord in an entirely new way because they have set out to do the impossible.
Yancey goes on to tell the story of the great composer Igor Stravinsky. He says that Stravinsky once wrote a piece of music that included a difficult violin passage. After several weeks of rehearsal, a professional violinist came to Stravinsky and told him that he had tried and in spite of his best effort he found the passage too difficult to play. Stravinsky replied, “I understand that. What I am after is the sound of someone trying to play it.” Yancey concludes by saying, “Perhaps something similar is what God had in mind with the church” (pg 99).
Does God truly expect us to be perfect, to be without sin? No, I can’t imagine that he does. Does God expect us to give our all in trying to be perfect, to try to be without sin? Absolutely, to do anything else would be a disgrace to our status as children of God.
I have one more metaphor for you today, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” This is something that we say to compare a person to their parents and it means that a child often reflects some of the qualities of their parents. I have my father’s nose and my mother’s eyes. I have my father’s mechanical interests and my mother’s gift of loquacity (aka the gift of gab).
I believe that this is the point of 1 John 3:1-10: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A child of God should reflect the qualities of God. And I would add to this by saying that we are all children of God. God loves us all, regardless of who we are or what we have done. We are all God’s children; some of us are still prodigals. May we all repent for our sins and strive to be perfect, to live without sin. May we reflect the image of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. May we truly be children of God.