"Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God, and every one that loveth him that begot loveth also him that is begotten of him. Herein we know that we love the children of God when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God that we keep his commandments; and his commandments are not grievous. For all that is begotten of God overcometh the world, and this is the victory that overcame the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?"
Here the apostle lays bare the root of the matter in hand. There is in the case another relationship of far deeper significance than that of "his brother," that is, of one brother to another. How is my brother related to God? For it is the same subject as in the last chapter carried into the present one. And it is very important to have all answer from God to the question now raised, Who is my brother? There are many serious and pious persons who seem to have great difficulty in answering this. No doubt the scattering of God's children, who were once gathered together in one, adds to the perplexity. Are my brethren the persons who compose the same religious communion? For any that think so, the love that God expects goes out to those in the same community, whether right or wrong. The community may be wrong or according to God; but even were it right in itself, the present state of ruin in the church is a reproach Godward, and makes the path slippery for most. The reason is that it may shut one up to a party fellowship, instead of looking to God's mind, the grief I ought to feel at confusion and disorder in divine things, and the danger of swerving from His will.
Let us not forget the essential feature of what becomes a saint is his separation to God, by His grace, from the world; not only from evil but to Himself in Christ. Sanctification is altogether imperfect if we leave out God, and only dwell on the avoidance of this or that evil. For clearly one might be separated from five hundred evils, yet in one thing drawn into fatal compromise, and thus not be truly in communion with God and His will. The separation might be ever so well intended, but not trustworthy, though likely to make the separatist self-satisfied. For when souls leave out God and His word as a whole, they are apt to have too good an opinion of themselves. But where Christ and God Himself are before the heart, what leads to more real humility?
This is exactly what we all need: to be perfectly happy by grace, yet nothing in our own eyes. Nothing but Christ for ourselves consciously in the presence of God harmonises these two blessings. You may find a person humble apparently but not holy, and a person apparently holy but far from humble. Neither is according to God. It is but affecting humility in one case, and sanctimoniousness in the other. They are self-deceived; Christ alone gives reality. Never trust those who accredit themselves as humble or holy. They remind one of the Old Testament description, "righteous over much." We have such always with us, but we need not trust them. For the most part they are those who say and do not.
But here we have the all-importance of knowing who they are that one is called to love. The apostle answers the question when things were becoming more and more difficult; and we need to be assured of God's will. Although the state was critical yet compared with our days orderly, where now it is anomalous, the test given is not that of outward communion. Today we see children of God, some here and some there, and Satan too successful in making them share ecclesiastically with almost every evil under the sun, so that real fellowship according to God's word is utterly swamped. Even God's children for the most part shirk the consequences of fidelity. So much the more do we want an absolutely unfailing, test who they are whom we are called to love, and here it is: - "Every one that believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God; and every one that loveth Him that begot loveth also him that is begotten of Him." He is God's child, and my brother. We are to love every one begotten of God, even "whosoever believeth."
Further, the way in which this faith is here described is remarkable too. The apostle John does not here look at Christ in glory, as he did in 1Jn_4:17. He does not even dwell on Christ's death and resurrection. There is no statement of redemption. It is the person of Jesus, and the person put in the simplest possible way as "the Christ." How good and wise on God's part! There are many that know a vast deal about the Lord's sayings and doings, who overlook His person. Such are not true believers. Here much is made of the simplest believer, if true to His person; and he who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ is no believer at all. He who does truly confess and believe Him thus might be quite ignorant of His many offices, and ignorant of God's purposes and counsels of glory, but he has the right object of faith before his soul as far as it goes. He might feebly apprehend Christ's priesthood, or His advocacy, and not at all His headship of the body the church, and His supremacy over all things, and any other grand truths and ways of the Lord, of which the New Testament is full. Such lack of knowledge is no proof that he is not a child of God; he has gradually to learn these things.
Here is a test in order to set our relationship to God on its right basis, and give our love its due direction. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ - the Anointed of God - whom He sent into the world to give life and be a Saviour, he is our brother. The apostle was inspired to come down to the lowest step on which one could rightly look at our Lord. It is not at all the particularism of Christ in glory, any more than of appreciating what is presented to faith in His work for our sins. The apostle does not warrant the thought that those and those alone are true Christians who are led at once to the gospel of Christ's glory; nor does he allow that those are the sole objects of love, who have believed as Saul of Tarsus did on the road to Damascus. John was inspired at the last epoch, when this Epistle was written to encourage the faith of the simpler souls who had never as yet heard of these things; but he would have them on God's part recognised as His children, and entitled to that love which is here urged on every saint.
Narrowness here is precisely what the Spirit of God detects and sets aside as dishonour to God. It is divine life, not ecclesiastical fellowship, which commends him who is begotten of God to the love of all alike begotten by Him. He lays down a quite opposed principle of the largest grace. If God has opened the heart to believe that Jesus is the Christ, perhaps of one placed in difficult circumstances and rarely hearing the truth of God, we are to welcome and heartily own and love him as begotten of God. As Jesus the Christ has become the object of his faith, our place is to gladly acknowledge one thereby brought out of darkness and death to life everlasting. It may be very little in point of knowledge; but our duty is to make the most of a real work of God. For so it surely is if the soul rests on the blessed person of Jesus as the Christ. He is born of God just as truly as this brother who seems to have entered rapidly into some of the deepest truths of the New Testament. We are called to love the one no less than the other. We are to love them both simply, truly and divinely. Such is the manner of the love enjoined; though we dare not speak of our measure in it.
And this is of practical moment; for some Christians are by no means so pleasant or agreeable as others; but all such natural difference is quite outside this love of which the Holy Spirit speaks. Christ gives and forms the objects of grace independently of the old nature and character; and if love then prevail, it is all the more to God's praise, where there was much to repel and dislike naturally. But life in Christ rises superior through the Spirit to all that is of flesh; and this is to God's glory, not man's. Many a Christian however has been misled by wrong thoughts instead of being properly confirmed in the truth. One soul has never been taught that we only begin, after conversion, to learn God's mind in His word. Another has been unhappily led to admire, like a Jew, fine buildings, and grand music in His worship, and thinks his prayers are more acceptable in a cathedral. If you do not know any one, even as a believer, so dense and ignorant of gospel liberty, there is at least one here who remembers it in himself.
The fact is common and beyond doubt that there are very many children of God altogether unacquainted with the ways of God who know no better. Now am I to slight a soul in that condition? Certainly not. If he be one who simply and truly believes in Jesus as the Christ, my heart is to go out to him as unfeignedly and warmly as to another ever so familiar with the truth and faithful in the ways of God. Only love is to be exercised according to the state. It needs the Spirit's guidance with discernment and consideration. Is he a weak one, easily to be hurt and east down? Is he so strong as to be able to bear plain speech and profit by it? It is rather a dangerous thing to uproot a habit of religion from a believer and destroy it without implanting the due truth to fill up the vacuum. They shall be all taught of God, says the Old Testament as well as the New. We need His guidance to act wisely as instruments of His grace in supplying the lack by a better knowledge of Christ and of God. Is not this the true way?
Perhaps if one began by attacking the pomp and show and natural attractions of the cathedral, it might shock the immature believer, used to these "beggarly elements" as the right thing. On the other hand one ought not to give the least appearance of accepting these Jewish things as Christian; that would be uncandid and unfaithful, mere pandering to the person's flesh and superstition. But all shows how much grace one needs to meet a saint who knows yet but little grace. How often one fails here! If we have to do with those who really stand in grace, they bear readily with much weakness; but with those who have little sense of grace, we need much grace to treat them according to God. Since God loves them, there is no reason why we should not, and every reason why we should. God loves all that are begotten of Him. There is the ground of our love, and the clue to all the difficulty. "Every one that loveth Him that begat, loveth also him that is begotten of Him."
We have not far to search in order to see that principle in the case of a family. If one goes into a household where he has a great regard for the head of it, what effect will that have on him as to the children? Assuredly to love them all. One child may be rather trying and noisy, liking to tease and apt to be turbulent, and too often falling out with his brothers and sisters. Another may be gentle and attractive above all the rest. But the question is, Do I love them all? Certainly I love every one of the children if I love the parents.
Divine life discloses goodness in the children of God, viewed with a single and loving eye. Nor, as the rule, is there more than a little trial for the love that we owe them; but on the other hand also we have to remember the trial that our shortcomings may give to them. Yet if these were tenfold more than they prove in fact, here is His word to me and to you: If we love God, we shall surely love His children; not merely those that we see from day to day, but those that we do not see. Whatever the strange appearances, the mistakes or even the wrongs to be blamed, all that only alters the way in which we are to show the love. Never allow the thought for a moment that we should not love them. Perhaps circumstances may be so bad that we can only pray, but let us pray in love before God. Let us also reflect how far our love stands the test toward the saints we believe to be in the wrong. Do we seek their good? Are we earnest that the truth should reach them so as to deliver them from any prejudice or prepossession? We can always make good our love in God's presence. There is little love if we be not exercised about these things and using means, both with God and ourselves, in whatever way He may lay it on our hearts. It seems to me that this is the clear consequence from the principle that the apostle here lays down in this verse.
Another principle comes before us in the second verse. "Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments." One can hardly conceive anything less logical according to the system of the schools. They would call it arguing in a circle, which is counted bad reasoning. But what has logic to do with the truth, with the grace of Christ, with the love of God and of His children? What has logic to do with life eternal? It is not a question of reasoning but of faith. Who can wonder that men who cannot rise above logic or learning or science are misty, yea, blind and lost before any characteristic truth in God's word, and find His love and its fruits all unintelligible or false according to dialectic rules. For there is no food for the soul in disputation; and if man could find bread for this life, "man liveth not by bread alone, but by everything that goeth out of the mouth of Jehovah doth man live" (Deu_8:3). The Christian has found the way of life and of divine love, and the workings of the Holy Ghost through God's word. He therefore bows to this remarkable word. "Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep His commandments." Thus are the various truths bound up together in one. It is the reasoning of the heart purified by faith, not only down from God, but up to Him again, blending obedience with the love of God and of His children. This is a most wholesome guard against deceiving or being deceived.
If this way of apostolic appeal be going round in a circle and sounds strange to Peripatetic ears, what can be more truly divine and worthy of God? Man cannot understand it, "because love is of God;" and we must have the love in order to understand such words. Never can one understand the practical ways of God without having the new nature which He communicates to the believer, which lives in both obedience and love. The life in Christ is given to him that believes on Him. When the believer is assured of this, intelligence follows, of which the Holy Spirit is the power that works in the new man. But the more we appreciate such grace toward us, the more the truth strikes, and fills us with praise as we see how it comes of sovereign grace in Christ, and all the Godhead shares in it, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can see how grace passes from the simple believing in Jesus as the Christ to the depths of God's nature, and constrains us not to take the truth without weighing the wonders of grace in it, nor to go on with our souls unexercised from day to day.
Is there any epistle more calculated to act on the believer's heart than the one now before us? If read in faith, there is certainly nothing to disturb our abiding in love. Christ has made this to faith a settled thing for ever. The truth of the gospel is the basis for God's abiding in us and our abiding in Him, no less than for the practice of loving the children of God which we know when we love God and keep His commandments. Divine love in Christ shines on a poor sinner, and gives him confidence that he is the object of perfect love, totally different from human affection at its best. For he is made not only a saint but a child of God. Only God could so love; and Christ His Son came to show it fully, and in order to do so, and blot out our sins, died as a sacrifice for us. This was not as man or the world gives; and it was made perfect, not only by the Holy Spirit coming to abide in us and with us, but in that we now in this world are as Christ is before the Father. For all the evils of us and in us are met and cleared by His death, and we have His risen life as our life, His Father our Father, His God our God; while we are in the world that crucified Christ. Soon is He coming to receive us to Himself that where He is we also may be. Meanwhile there are others who are God's children as we are, and He calls us to love them as He does. As they are in the same relationship and position, all is made plain. If God loves, so do we His children; and He makes it a matter of command to love our brother and to love them all. If we love not them, we do not love Him but deceive ourselves. This then is an end of that question.
But how is the love to the children of God to be shown? It is inseparable from loving God and keeping His commandments. It is not true love to them, if we fail in love to God or in keeping His commandments. Is not this a remarkable and heart-searching turn given to loving them? Is it not a matter for serious consideration? What a cheek to easy-going indifference! Suppose a child of God to be entrapped in an offence against God, either in false doctrine or in any practical way, what then? Is it love to sanction the evil thing, to make light of it, or to join one in it though a brother? "Herein we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments." It is not loving God's children when we show how little we love God by indifference to His injunction. Thus we have the principle of obedience affirmed in a new way to cheek the abuse of loving those who are sinning and call for censure. If we trifle with sin, if we slur over evil and wrong against God under the pretext of loving the children of God, we cannot know that our love to God's children is a reality, but a snare to us and to them. If through any cause we slip into disobeying God's will, all is wrong in our souls, and we have no certainty in our paths; for we have ceased to enjoy communion with Him, and we are in danger of humouring instead of loving the children of God. It is no longer true that we love them in a divine way. But if on the contrary we by faith introduce God into the question as One that the heart loves, then keeping His commandments follows, which forbids human yielding where He is concerned, and we have confidence that we love His children as in His sight. This is therefore an important test to judge our souls before Him. It is a truth which goes deep indeed, and closes the question by His word.
"For this is the love of God that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not grievous." Thus the Holy Spirit gives not only a test in ver. 2 but a counter-test in ver. 3. It is not the love of God, or of His children, if we are disobedient. True love of God obeys, while it also shows itself in loving His children, and not our set or party but all His own. We cannot separate obedience from love. If it is not obedience, neither is it love. If it is divine love, obedience accompanies it. "And His commandments are not grievous." It is the estimate of the apostle and of all who are before God with confidence in His grace. It is the truth pronounced by the Holy Spirit. So the Lord Himself, in Matt. 11, declared His yoke easy and His burden light. But there is in the way of the children of God a constant hindrance, greater perhaps than anything else. At first sight you might think of the flesh. But no: near as the flesh is to us, there is a more serious difficulty. When the flesh in Christians breaks out, they are conscious of shame and sensible that they are wrong. But the world is a subtle malaria around us; and, when it affects us insidiously, we may remain unconscious what it is that produces spiritual dimness and inability to enjoy the Father's love or to return it. This again is what alienates the children of God one from another in various ways, and corrupts in proportion as it influences. If the heart values the world, it is stolen away from God's children as those whom God would bind together with the nearest of family ties, and would have love to be ever flowing in the Spirit's power. This the world utterly forbids; for it loves its own in its poor selfish and heartless way. Thus no small danger arises for the saints who seek its ease and honour. It is a pitfall for these and other reasons. If a Christian wants to stand well with the world, he must please it to the grief of the Spirit.
Men cannot tolerate the love of God's children, because it condemns the world. They are unwilling to associate with such as love the brotherhood, and ask if these low people are really your companions. How can you make such folk your special friends? If a saint wants to keep up a position in the world, the difficulty is at once felt. The gentlemen and ladies you court refuse to let you shame them with those of your intimacy they despise. This is and must be the spirit of the world. Yet you, a child of God and heir of heaven, wish to stand well in their eyes who crucified the Lord of glory! In their presence therefore you seek to avoid even a brotherly notice of poor children of God who are to reign with Christ and before the world too! Is this love to God and to His children? Is it loyalty to Christ, this anxiety of yours to be on good terms with the world? Then His commandments are more or less grievous. Is this not so? Where do you drift? These gentlemen and ladies, are they God's children? You do not say so; but they are nice people! Even if you hope they may be God's children, know you not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? "Whosoever therefore is minded to be friend of the world is constituted enemy of God." Do they not pursue the same principles and the same practices which cast out the Son of God from the world?
This is how we ought to look at the world because God so looks at it. It matters not how long ago it is since the world crucified the Lord. The sin is just as fresh now before God as when the fatal deed was done. No real change has come for the world since that day of guilt. It either claims the Christian relationship, or it denies it to those who believe. "What presumption to call Him your Father!" "Righteous Father," said the Lord, "the world knew Thee not." They might think it serving God to persecute those presumptuous men whom Christ is not ashamed to call His brethren, and who claim God as their Father. "Worst of all, they say He is not our Father, only theirs." What is more offensive to the world than drawing the line - presuming to have heavenly blessings and privileges which the world has not?
Do you plead that it is not exactly for yourself? But you have a son or daughter, whom you desire to have a fair place in the world: you have given it up for yourself, but there are the children! This is often the way in which the worldliness of a parent's heart is shown. It is not the earnest desire for the child to be in Christ, and God's own child. The practical aim first is to secure a good place in the world, though they pray that the child may be saved too. Meanwhile the unceasing effort is to advance the children in this present life. What is this but the world, no matter how it may be put in different shapes? It may not always be said, but the actions prove where the heart is. This seems to be the connection between vers. 3 and 4.
God's commandments are grievous chiefly through the evil influence of the world. "For all that is begotten of God overcometh the world." This is a searching appeal when we think how the children of God pander to the world. In general there is an utterly vague sense of what the world is. One has often been shocked among sober and real Christians to find on asking them what is the world, that they avow themselves unable to tell. Not a few think, since even the masses are baptized that, with the exception of open infidels, the world is gone and that Christendom has replaced it to the glory of God, if not for individual exactitude, at any rate in the moral sense of the expression. But let us not be deceived by Satin or appearances, were it incomparably better than it is. Christ is always the touchstone of truth. Is Christ now the life, the object, of mankind in any country under the sun? Where He is all this and more, simply and truly, it is not the world. Christ gives living consciousness of and rest in the Father's love; and where this is enjoyed in the Holy Spirit, it is not the world. But where other objects than Christ attract and govern the heart, and the Father's love is unknown or counted an impossibility, the world remains in unchanged opposition. Can any question be of greater moment, if we have not already decided it by faith, than that we should examine ourselves and test our conscience, heart and ways? For it is an easy thing to let the world gain advantage in detail, even where in the main we seek to be faithful. Is it not dangerous, if we feel ourselves hazy, to shrink from the scriptural test? Divine love assuredly binds us, if we see more clearly, to help one another, instead of yielding to the unloving habit of spying out inconsistencies in this one or that, is an excuse for being mixed up with the world in divine worship and ways. There is nothing of Christ in anything of the sort.
Here we have the assurance that it is not the mystic recluse, nor the highly spiritual only, but that "All that is begotten of God overcometh the world." Does not this stimulate is well as encourage the simplest child of God? Have not all such been begotten of God? There is the principle laid down plainly. Not a single real Christian is exempted from the privilege any more than the responsibility. As every believer now is an object of God's love and in the relationship of His family, so he "overcometh the world." "And this is the victory that overcometh the world (not service, not sacrifice, nor even love, but) - our faith." Do you believe this, Christian? Be not faithless here but faithful. It is by faith in our Lord Jesus that we are brought to God; so too that we are kept of God; it is so that we discern and repel the enemy; and so do we obediently rest in His love who deigned to call us His friends.
Faith is the victory that overcame the world; but how? This he next adds. It is "he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God." It is now not as "the Christ" simply. It is the same Jesus, but the apostle goes farther in the expression of His personal dignity. And it is always so with the real soul. One might well begin with believing that He is Jesus the Christ, or one might have had presented to faith yet more than this, - though it was glad tidings to hear on divine authority that God anointed Jesus, having sent Him into the world for the everlasting good of those who believe; and this is the Christ. But here we are told of His glory above the world as the eternal Son of God. Is not this far beyond His being the Christ or Anointed on the earth? He was Son of God before the world, and however the world or His earthly people reject, His glory as the Son of God will survive heaven and earth. He that came down was God humbling Himself in love; and He that went up was Man after redemption exalted above all the universe, Jesus the Son of God. He, who is God and man in one person fills the Christian's heart, and shall fill all things. We no longer look at Him only as the Anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power who went about doing good and healing all those domineered by the devil. We see Him in heavenly glory, we are. enabled to appreciate Him in His eternal relationship to God, no less than to ourselves and to all else.
This is His title to explain the character of the faith that overcomes the world. How could it be otherwise? Grace in Him attracted our hearts when lost, gave us life, and died for our sins; then the new life is called into exercise in the knowledge of a divine glory that dims and annuls the false glory of man and the world, and of a love that brings us into actual relationship with the Father and the Son, creating kindred duties, according to the entirely new place into which sovereign grace has now brought the Christian. The life we receive cannot but rise to its source, and as the grace better known gives it more power by the Spirit, we rise in our appreciation of Christ and of His word. Hence is seen the bearing of the truth that He is not only the Anointed coming into the world on His errand of divine mercy but the Son of God with a personal glory irrespective of any such mission, which is only enhanced by the world's ignorant contempt of Him to its own ruin. He is the Son of man who went down into all the depths to glorify God even as to sin and to save the lost. But as He was the Son of God before the earth and the heavens, so He abides when they shall perish. Hence this glory of the Lord Jesus is brought forward as that which strengthens faith against all difficulties from the world. For "Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?"
It is a soul that did not settle down in the truth received when first converted, but having tasted its preciousness was led on by the Spirit to know Him better in relation not only to its own circle but to God and His glory. "To him that hath shall be given"; and the diligent shall be made fat, yet better still have the joy of apprehending His love and His perfections. This therefore gave power over all the world could do in hatred and frown, any more than in its attractions, ease, or honour. Faith ever sees in the world the murderous hatred of the Son of God. Are we then to fear what we must abhor? "In the world ye have tribulation; but be of good cheer (be courageous): I have overcome the world" (Joh_16:33).
The ever deepening faith in the glory of Christ is the main preservative against the world. As Satan is its prince with no end of wiles to mislead and injure, we need all that our Lord is even as Son of God to overcome in the conflict to which our very blessing in Him exposes and commits us. To be assured that the God of peace will bruise Satan under our feet is excellent; but to rest on that final victory alone would be a snare for our souls. We are here to defeat him now and always, as Joshua exhorted Israel; and we must be faithful in little things every day if we are to overcome in great difficulties.
Hence we may see how the Lord in His epistles to the Seven Churches in Asia expects it in every one of them, and gives special and suited promises to invigorate the faithful individuals when He could not count on the declining assemblies. See too how, when it was not only the Balaam spirit with Nicolaitanism as in Pergamos but the yet more audacious Jezebel in Thyatira, it is there that He presents Himself as the Son of God, the rock on which He builds His church superior to the power of death. It is life in Him that fits us for fellowship with the Father and Himself; but in order to overcome the world and enjoy the fellowship, faith in the Son of God must be fresh and firm by grace, and the Christian world so-called (as many are not ashamed to call it) becomes more painful and disgusting than the gross and open heathen world. So it is to the Father and the Son. The Patristic corrupters of the truth used to teach that if people got baptized, even if living wickedly, their sufferings in hell would be mitigated through their baptism; but the Lord had ruled the contrary if they had only an ear to hear. "That bondman who knew his own lord's will, and had not prepared [himself] nor done his will, shall be beaten with many [stripes]; but he who knew not and did things worthy of stripes shall be beaten with few" (Luk_12:47-48).
Oh let us see to it that, simple and strong in the faith that Jesus is the Son of God, we too may overcome the world!
"This is he that came through water and blood, Jesus Christ; not by (or, in the power of) the water only but by the water and the blood; and it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. Because three are those that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood; and the three agree in one. If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; because this is the witness of God which he hath witnessed concerning his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself; he that believeth not God hath made him a liar, because he hath not believed in the witness which God hath witnessed concerning his Son. And this is the witness that God gave to us life eternal, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not life."
The verses last before us in the beginning of this chapter indicate both those whom we are to love according to God, and that this love is inseparable from obedience. Divine love in the Christian cannot be without obeying God's commands. It is not so with natural affection, as this too is entirely independent of obedience. Christian love is the spiritual activity of the new man, and as it goes out to all that are God's children because they are His, it cannot go out to any apart from subjection to God's will. Love must take a different shape if dealing with the disobedience of such as are bound to obey God. In every case divine love and divine obedience are supposed to be inseparable in the believer.
Then we learn that there is a present enemy against us in both respects, an enemy which children of God are apt to overlook in its insidious character. The youngest have reason to feel that what is called in scripture "the flesh" is a source of hateful and selfish evil, though alas it is easier to detect its uncomeliness in another than in oneself. Indeed it is part of its deceivable working that we are as quick to discern (if not imagine) its offensiveness in another as we are slow thoroughly to judge it in our own case.
But the world is often a subtler snare. It has its own code of decorum, while it offers many an object which is pleasant to human nature, and to many real Christians; its religion (the worst part of it in God's sight) has powerful attraction. The world therefore is a far more dangerous enemy than the flesh. An outbreak of the flesh is not only disreputable but humbling and a distress before God, even to a comparatively small measure of spirituality. But the world to a large extent seems respectable, and consequently, where not a saint would fail to discover the ordinary works of the flesh, most are apt to make excuses for the indulgence of the world. Now the world is the direct enemy of the Father, so much so that the love of the Father as such can never have power or be enjoyed where the spirit of the world prevails. It has often been remarked and is evidently true, that in Scripture as the world is opposed to the Father, so the flesh is to the Spirit, and the devil to the Son of God. But opposition of and in this triple evil to the Trinity Satan works for mischief through the world and the flesh; and we have the comfort that God the Father works for good through the Lord Jesus by the Spirit. We may distinguish the different forms of evil, but in fact they often coalesce in practice, and so also it is in the working of the Godhead; and greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.
This brings before its the testimony of God in the world, which appeals to man and forms His own family. It is therefore through faith in the word which reveals Jesus the Son of God. It is not a matter of reasoning nor of affection, any more than through a rite applied by a special class of men. It is through God's testimony dealing with the conscience of the sinner, purifying the heart by the faith which rests for atonement on the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus. "This is He that came through water and blood, Jesus Christ; not by the water only, but by the water and the blood." For God gives special witnesses in order to act on man under the pressure of uncleanness and guilt, whether believers or unbelievers - unbelievers that they may bow to Him and the truth; believers that they may be purged in conscience, enlarged and strengthened in their faith.
Here then we are led from the person of Christ, which had just been before us, to the work of Christ characterising His person. For His work it is which furnishes the witnesses. God deigns to give us more than sufficient testimony. Two witnesses were required in the things of man with man, two sufficed, three better still. Here God provides fully. He presents to man three witnesses of the greatest conceivable weight for leading into the truth. "This is He that came," neither by human birth, might, or wisdom, nor yet by divine power or glory. It was not through His incarnation nor through His unequalled ministry. "This is He that came through water and blood, Jesus Christ." He who was the true God and life eternal came to die as truly as any man, yet as no other could die, He by God made sin to save sinners and wash them, not only purified inwardly but in God's sight whiter than snow through His blood. Yes He came to die, for His death alone could blot out our sins or glorify God as to sin (Joh_13:31-32). The allusion is unquestionably to our Lord on the cross, dead already, pierced by the soldier to make sure of His death, out of whose side flowed blood and water. In the history the blood is that which caught the eye first of course, and so there first named. The water was observed however to flow also. Whoever saw or heard of a fact so extraordinary that blood and water should issue out of the side of a dead man? Yet so they did here.
The Gospel of John (Joh_19:33-37) had drawn attention to it more than to His most stupendous miracles. "But when they came to Jesus they broke not his legs; but one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and immediately there came out blood and water. And he that hath seen hath witnessed, and his witness is true, and he knoweth that he saith true that ye also may believe." It was really from the dead Man. God furnished this preternatural sign of a work peculiar to the incarnate Son of God alone; and the Spirit of God thought it so significant for His glory and man's reconciliation as first to record it signally in the last Gospel, and next to apply it to us in the Epistle before us.
"This is he that came through water and blood." Adam did not become father of the race till sin entered and death began its work. So our Lord became Head of the new creation when He rose, having borne our sins, the Firstborn of many brethren. Through "death" (not birth, as Puseyites, Irvingites, Rationalists, and other errorists are alike now asserting) He annulled him that had the power of death. Till then the Levitical system with priests, sacrifices and earthly sanctuary had God's sanction. Then only was the work finished, and Christianity began on the basis of one efficacious offering and a risen Saviour, soon to be glorified in heaven. Hence as Paul, in restating the gospel to the volatile Corinthians, began with Christ dying for our sins according to the Scriptures, so in enforcing God's testimony the apostle John passes all else by and comes to the Lord's death for purification and atonement. Here he begins with water, the well-known figure of the cleansing power of the word, as we read among other Scriptures in Joh_3:5, there the Spirit co-operating, as here "blood" follows. The word of God first deals effectually with souls. God speaks to our conscience thereby, and brings us in guilty. His word, never tradition or any rhetoric of man, proves us deaf, stubborn, sin-defiled in His sight. But how precious it is henceforth, so to speak, as flowing from Him thus!
Consequently the washing of water is from the riven side of Him that died for sinners. This enhances its force immensely. So before He died the Lord laid down, "He that is bathed (i.e., washed all over) needeth not save to wash his feet." The person receives but one bathing; the feet need to be washed throughout the earthly pilgrimage. Christ's advocacy is what really meets the daily failures, not the Lord's Supper (a profane as well as an ignorant misuse of it); and the Holy Spirit applies His word on the ground of His death, whenever the need arises; but there is once only for the Christian "the washing of regeneration." Nothing but the death of Christ gives us clearance from sin. We may indeed feel and hate the sin, and judge ourselves because of it; but there is no clearance of the soul apart from Christ's death. "This is he that came," etc. Such is the grand truth that was before God in Christ's death. And Christ is here summed up for the testimony of God in His death. How deep the truth! How incomparable the grace which could so speak to us!
But it is not only true that this is the purifying power brought to bear on us from the threshold of Christianity; His death was as absolutely needed on God's side as on ours. Here of course it was not for cleansing but for expiation. Sin had dislocated and thrown all here below into a moral chaos. The cross established divine order for ever. Without it how could love and light, grace and truth work together? How could love bring to heaven the sinner whom light disclosed to be only fit for hell? If grace pleaded for mercy, what could gainsay the truth that he is a heartless ungodly enemy? In the cross God's nature and attributes find perfect vindication and harmony. There God is glorified in the Son of man; and it is His righteousness thereby to justify the merest, yea the worst, sinner who truly believes in the Lord Jesus.
Hence it is that He came through "blood," and it is added, "not by water only, but by water and blood." God's majesty, His authority, His word, His holiness, His righteousness, no less than His love, were all concerned. But now in the death of the Son of man all are harmonised and glorified in absolute perfection, as could be in no other way; and if God there rests in everlasting delight, He is working by the Holy Spirit sent forth from heaven to reveal it by His word to all that receive Christ, and His word by faith.
But what did the Lord's having come (for it was the end of His earthly life) by the water and the blood tell concerning man? The awful truth that man was so utterly bad that even a living and divine Blesser, who deigned to become man in His love to man, did not and could not draw man out of his evil and enmity. It must be a dying Saviour. "Ye will not come to me that ye might have life" (Joh_5:40); "Except the corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone" (Joh_12:24) 1, if I be lifted out of the earth, will draw all to me" (Joh_12:32). Christ's death is the overwhelming proof of man's moral death, and now is by grace the basis of the best blessings of God. How it demonstrates that the law of God could only condemn man! It no less proves the total ruin of human nature in every class. Though all the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily, even it could not deliver man from his sins short of Christ's death, who thereon risen is the fulness and pattern of the new and heavenly estate of man according to divine counsels of grace.
It is not easy to render adequately the two prepositions in ver. 6, which are nevertheless alike rendered "by" in the Authorised Version. For the first used once (διὰ is here given "through," in order to distinguish it from the second (ἐν which has a stronger force expressed fully by "in the power of," but perhaps sufficiently as "by." The first, looking symbolically at water and blood as the means of meeting man's extremity, conveys that the Lord Jesus came to make this good for the believer's deliverance from defilement and from guilt. In the next and emphatic clause "in" is employed, which here as often would mean "in the power of," and hence "not in the power of the water only, but in the power of the water and the blood." So lost was man that Christ come on his behalf, though God and man in one person, was unavailing through anything but death to purify and atone. And so did He in fact come in or by His death in this full power. There was His death infinitely efficacious in itself for the foulest and guiltiest of sinners, even if not a soul had believed. But God's grace would and did work, so that there should be faith in Him, and hence "by the water and the blood."
But there is another addition of great moment. "And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth." All know that the Lord Jesus speaks of Himself as "the truth." How then is the Spirit also called the truth, though God the Father never is? The word, as the written or verbal answer to Christ, is also so designated, which we can readily understand, the word which the Holy Spirit employs for glorifying Christ to and in His own. But the difference seems to lie in this, that Jesus the Son is the truth objectively before us, the Spirit as the power that works inwardly in the saint to realise and enjoy Christ. Two deep wants must be met in order to be blessed of God. The truth we need from God for conscience, heart and mind; and it is given fully and perfectly in our Lord Jesus, the truth objectively. But there is "sin" in the old nature which resists what condemns; and even when a man is begotten of God, vigilance against its working out is always necessary here below. How is this met? By the Spirit of God, who is therefore the truth as the inward power for bringing home and applying the truth which is found in Christ outside. The Holy Spirit makes the object of faith received and intrinsically prized. He is the appropriating energy to the new man, life in Christ. In this which is a very needed and real thing He too is the truth inwardly, though we cannot quite correctly say subjectively. In simple English, we look on the Lord as set before the eye of faith; and the Spirit is the power within our hearts. As the truth is the revelation of every one and every thing as they are, we can understand why the Son and the Holy Spirit can alike be called the truth, but neither God as such, nor the Father, because in neither is the revealer, though by the Son and the Spirit fully revealed.
If you listen to theology (that is, the attempt to make revealed truth a "science," as rationalists and ritualists love to do to God's dishonour and to their own grievous loss), they talk of God as the truth. I remember, years ago, meeting a celebrated but sceptic foreigner of the Romantic school who, though to me he discarded the Voltaires and the Rousseaus, laid his main stress on God being the truth. To a mutual friend he tersely if not reverently reported the difference, in that he saw God for himself, I only "through the spectacles of Jesus Christ." Yes, he deceived himself that he saw or knew Him in any real way. God in Himself is entirely above creature ken. Man requires a mediator who is man no less than God, in order that we should be enabled by the Spirit to know Him. Thus only can truth be known. God as such is not the revelation of God (nor man's conscience, nor his reason), but Christ as object, and the Spirit as the inner power for the new nature. How is God revealed? In Christ. Christ is the Revealer outwardly, as the Spirit works inwardly, and the word is the revelation of God or the truth. Christ might be before us every moment of our life, and we no better for it, unless the Holy Spirit co-operated with the word in enabling us to receive it by faith and thenceforward in the new life.
But the apostle had more to say in his few but pregnant words. "For three are those that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three agree in one." It will be noticed that the order is here reversed. Historically it was the blood, the water, and the Spirit sent from heaven in honour of Christ's redemption, to give the saints the abiding Paraclete, and to spread the glad tidings universally in God's power, not in man's, though working through man. God gives three testifiers, which agree in one testimony; but in spiritual fact the order is, "the Spirit, and the water, and the blood." Of course, literally speaking, the personal witness is the Holy Ghost, and He too is the present living power. The water and the blood are but figuratively called witnesses, and so are personified. But the Holy Spirit is a true person in the Godhead; and one of His special functions, like the Son's, is to bear witness on earth, He of Christ, as Christ of God and the Father. "And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth."
But the text here has suffered, whether by inadvertence or by design. Be it said briefly that from "in heaven" in ver. 7 to "on earth" in ver. 8 is not scripture but an interpolation. It may have been at first a mere marginal note, copied afterwards as the text by men that did not understand the truth. The history of the case has been fully and minutely traced, the result of which is that the same grounds which make the New Testament text certain elsewhere prove this insertion as certainly to be a human accretion. Let me however show that any Christian who does not know one Greek word ought to be satisfied that it is spurious. Such a one requires neither men of learning nor even the fruit of their researches to decide the question for himself. The word of God itself is amply sufficient and perfectly conclusive.
First, what is the meaning of bearing witness "in heaven"? When you weigh the thought, is it not (I will not say unscriptural only, but) rather folly? How could there be such a need or fact as to "bear witness in heaven"? The natural denizens in heaven are angels who never needed witness borne to them. They were elect and holy. In their case witness is superfluous. The fallen angels are irreparably lost, having left their first estate, some delivered to chains of darkness, others as yet allowed, like Satan, to accuse the saints whom they tempt, and to deceive the whole inhabited earth. Neither is witness for them. The spirits of the saints gone to be with Christ, what possible witness can they require?* It is on earth that witness is needed and is given by God's grace, because men are steeped in darkness and lack the truth. Pilate only expressed the ignorance of all the world in his question, What is truth? He was otiose, and like most waited not for the sure answer. None could find it exit unless God gave competent witnesses; and here they are, His three witnesses, "The Spirit, the water, and the blood."
*There is another internal proof that the three who bear witness in heaven is human error, and not the revealed truth of God. No inspired man ever wrote, "The Father, the Word." They are not correlative terms. In scripture we have the "Word" with "God," and the "Son" with the "Father." The editors of the Complutensian Polyglot first printed the unauthorised words from some recent MS. of no account, even if not written since printing came into use, and perhaps to authenticate the Latin Vulgate for Romanists use against its old and best MSS. One of the Greek MSS. represents it in such bad Greek as only an ignorant and non-Hellenist can have written, omitting the article where required.
By the way, it may be well to advertise any limited to the English Bible, that the "record" is the same thing as the "witness." Both mean God's testimony to man; as in Joh_5:22-23, the same word rightly rendered "judgment" appears wrongly as "condemnation" and "damnation." It is a loss that the word was not, especially in the same context, translated in the same way, because it leads people to fancy there must he some difference, as indicated by two or even three English words. "Three* are those that bear witness," but without "on earth," the last words of the interpolation. These words were unnecessary, because only there does God give His witnesses; and the object is to present the truth to those who do not know it. Thanksgiving and praise characterise heaven, not witnessing. But here, if we receive the witness of God ourselves, the love of Christ constrains us to bear witness to others who are still sinners as we were.
*It was a blundering idea after all to make six witnesses, three for heaven and three for earth. It supposes the Spirit in heaven answering to the Spirit in earth. It is as awkward to conceive the Holy Spirit an earthly witness also, as to imagine Spirit in the second triad to mean another, as some defenders of the importation contended. But it is needless to say more than that the Codex Ravianus as well as one of the Wolfenbüttel copies (in Berlin), is an evident forgery which Copies the Complutensian Polyglot in its misprints and the peculiar letters. The Codex Regius Neapolitanus (173 in Scholz' list) confirms the true text, and gives the clause in a correct shape only in the margin. The other two (Cod. Ottob. or Vat. 298, and Cod. Montfort. or Trin. Coll. Dubl. G. 97) grossly omit the article and are otherwise quite in error.
Now let us come to what the Spirit wrote. There is nothing but the truth there.
It has been already shown. how right the order is in verse 6, which puts the Spirit last, because the presence of the Spirit as the divine witness on earth not only followed Christ's work on the cross, but also is given individually since on the faith of the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation. Consequently the water and the blood preceded, as in fact so in the dealing of grace with the believer. Is it not so that one receives the truth of the gospel? First the word of truth enters through an awakened conscience, and one comes to God as a sinner in the name of the Saviour. Then the blood of Christ is privately presented or publicly preached to him as the perfect sacrifice to meet his case; and, if he submit to God's righteousness instead of his seeking to establish his own, the Holy Spirit is given as a Spirit of liberty and communion. This last he could not have without resting on the all-cleansing blood of Christ. Thus the order in the soul's blessing by grace answers to the water, and the blood, and the Spirit, just as in the terms laid down in verse 6. So in the consecration of the sons of Aaron, the priests, first came the washing with water; then the blood of the ram of consecration put on the right ear, on the right thumb, and on the right toe (the organs of reception, of work, and of walk); and in the last place the anointing oil with blood from the altar sprinkled on them and their garments. What believer can fail to see how the type conforms to the New Testament reality in Christians now constituted a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices, the only priests and the only sacrifices in worship on earth now acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
But we come now to the witnesses looked at in the order not of God's dealings historically but of the operation in the Christian. individually. Now when we speak of three as bearing witness, the Spirit necessarily comes first, because He it is who not only has His crowning place but makes known in power the water and the blood for the soul's blessing. That is the reason of the difference in the next verse. "For three are those that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water and the blood, and the three agree in one" - three witnesses, jut for one united testimony. "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater." May I recall the divine relief and deliverance these words gave more than sixty years ago to a soul converted but harassed and deeply exercised through sense of sin which clouded his soul's rest on Jesus? These words chased away all doubt, and made him ashamed to question God's witness. It became God's application of the truth to him and no longer his applying it to himself, though not at all doubting the intrinsic worth of Christ's death for the sinner. It is not my seeing as I ought the efficacy of the blood, but resting by faith on God's seeing it, and God's valuing it as it deserves.
What then is God's witness spoken of in the beginning of verse 9? The answer is, "Because this is the witness of God which he hath witnessed concerning his Son." The troubled spirit just because no longer dead is intensely anxious for His witness about itself; and this agitation hinders it from hearing God about His Son. But this is the whole matter when one has given up oneself as good for nothing before God, a mere and lost sinner. Christ thus received on God's witness enables me to have done with myself altogether. What Christ is and has done gives peace. The Lord's death is the best proof that there is no life in the first man or his race. From Cain to the cross, bad as fallen man is elsewhere, his worst is when he professes religion and makes it his dependence and boast; as from the blood of Abel to the infinitely precious blood of Jesus we learn man's hatred to the grace and truth of God in Christ. But all becomes clear, though not always at once, to faith. "He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself; he that believeth not God hath made Him a liar, because he hath not believed in the witness which God hath witnessed concerning His Son." Can any witness be simpler, clearer, stronger than God's in these few and plain words? Are they not meant for anyone brought to feel his need of such mercy? Oh the unbelief of calling faith presumption! of doubting that one is entitled by God's word to take Him at His word, to own Him true and faithful in receiving His witness concerning His Son! Can any seek a more thorough proof that man, however religious after the flesh, believes Satan and disbelieves God? Ordinarily nobody would think of doubting a grave man's witness. Everybody just as ordinarily doubts God's witness for himself, and runs down the believer as presumptuous if not a hypocrite.
How foolish too to listen to the enemy's whisper that you are too great a sinner for Christ to save. He came to save the lost: can you be worse than "lost "? What does not "lost" include? Think of the Samaritan; of the sinful woman in a city; of Mary of Magdala: all desperate cases, each different from the other; all saved, and given to know it; and all recorded that you too may believe and be saved. They were each saved "by grace," God's grace and not theirs, and "through faith," not feelings, or love, or service, or sacraments. The apostle thanked God that he had baptised few of the many Corinthians that believed and were baptised. Christ, he said, sent him, the apostle, not to baptise but to preach the gospel. It was in Christ that he begot them through the gospel, not through baptism, excellent for its own end as it is. But baptism never gave life to a single soul; Christ is the life-giver to all who believe, working in each individually by His word and Spirit, as He will judge all who reject Him to their ruin. What will He say to those who mike void His word through a tradition, and in place of believing God, put a rite to give life to His deep dishonour and to magnify their own office, as if they were mediators between the living and the dead? This is the real presumption, not faith which gives God the glory.
Eternal life is in the Son of God, the Second man. Such is the prime doctrine of the Epistle. To this we come round once more after the very striking use made of the blood and water from out of the dead Christ, with the gift of the Holy Spirit given in consequence, to the chief characteristic of the Epistle - eternal life in the Son of God. It is indeed one of the greatest truths in all Scripture, and of capital importance for the saints in our day. We have learnt by experience the mischief done by such as lapsed into undermining or obscuring it, under the vain pretext of new truth, while it was no better than old trash revived, a frequent device of Satan to accomplish his malicious purposes.
Well then, "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater." - What is so good, and wise, and sure? what so satisfying as God's witness? He knows all truth, and as the God of all grace has given His Son both to declare it and to make us capable of receiving it in a new life; and further, after redemption His Spirit is divine power both to enjoy it and make it known to our fellows. Therefore one can understand the weight of such a word as "the witness of God," greater than all difficulties.
And this triple witness of God is first of death written on all mankind by Him who drank the cup to the dregs, but His death issuing in a life without sin for us, though this for Him was always needless. That eternal life did not require any work for itself. It was our state of sin and death that needed His death for victory over all evil to God's glory.
"For this is the witness of God [which] he hath witnessed concerning his Son. He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself." "Ye receive not our witness," said the Lord to Nicodemus. Man must be born anew; he is incapable otherwise of learning according to God. Faith in God's word alone leads to being taught of God. The church ought to have been, like the Lord, a faithful and true witness But its state had already become such as to make it untrustworthy. What unfailing comfort then especially for the believer to have the witness, God's witness "in himself!"
But here, where was absolute need, and where by grace we have "the witness of God," how barefaced and faithless it is to call any soul to "hear the church"! Nay, the same word of God, which shows what the church was called to be in the world, equally shows that the church was to fall into all sorts of disorder. And remarkable it is in the two Epistles to Timothy that these two views are given: in the first Epistle the church in order, "the pillar and pedestal of the truth"; in the second Epistle, the church in a state of sad disorder. But the church is not the truth which the Christian is bound to hear and receive, though the corporate witness to it, as the Christian is the individual witness. Both the church and the Christian are called to hear as the truth nothing but the authoritative word of God. In 2 Timothy we learn that the Christian profession has become like a great house full of vessels to honour and dishonour. Therefore when the leaven was accepted and enforced instead of being purged out (1 Cor. 5), it became a question of purging oneself out from these radically settled evils, in order to be a vessel unto honour. Yet it is not for isolation, but "with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart."
But so far is Scripture from allowing such a claim that we learn from its final book, the Revelation, that each faithful soul is charged to hear, not what the church says, but "what the Spirit saith to the churches," and this expressly in each of the Lord's messages to all the seven churches. Can anything be conceived more opposed to the Lord's mind than such an assumption, as Christendom sinks into ruin?
But whatever be the state of Christendom the word of God remains ever true and applicable to the Christian, "He that believeth . . . hath the witness in himself." Were the believer in a land where he could enjoy no fellowship with saints, where he had no opportunity to hear a Christian teacher, where he knew of not a single brother in the Lord, the Son of God on whom he believes remains just the same; and he has the witness in himself as surely as if surrounded with every Christian privilege possible on earth. He is not dependent on any one under the sun; he has the Son. How profoundly wise and gracious is this