Commentary on 1 John 3:2-3
The first three verses of chapter 3 return to the subject of eschatology, or of Christian hope, with which the present section began. This hope is based on a changed reality. According to John, it is by reason of God’s love that believers can be called, and indeed already are, children of God. Note John’s insistence that this is not only for the future. We are children of God now. It is possible that some of those whose teachings he rejects held that, just as according to them Jesus was made the Son of God at his baptism, so are believers made children of God at a future point—probably at death. But John will have none of that. We are children of God now!
Obviously, being children of God means that God, as a loving parent, takes care of believers. This is a common theme in the Gospels. But it means much more than that. In the ancient world, even more than today, people were often judged and classified according to who their father was. Occupations were often determined by the occupation of one’s father. Social standing depended on the position of the head of the household. As we see throughout the Old Testament, nations were divided into clans according to their progenitors, and such clans were divided into families in the same way. We have a slight remnant of that today in the last names we are given, usually taken from our fathers. In such a context, to say that believers are children of God certainly means that God protects them like a loving parent; but it means much more. It means that who they are is defined by who their father is, God. It is difficult to imagine what this would mean for someone who had been brought up as a slave, or who was baseborn. I am no longer just a slave! I am no longer just a fishmonger! I am a child of the God most high! I am as much as the emperor, and even more!
But then, even though all of this may be true, things haven’t changed much in the actual world. If I am a slave, my master still commands and exploits me. If I am a fishmonger, I still have to get up very early every morn¬ing to go buy my fish, and I still smell of fish. Furthermore, having become a Christian has not simplified matters; on the contrary, it has made them worse. People now look at me as if I were crazy. They exclude me from their associations and celebrations, because I will not worship their gods. How can it be that I am now a child of God?
John’s answer is to point to the rejection Jesus himself suffered: “The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him”—an asser¬tion in which one hears echoes of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel. The world rejected the light, and still walks in darkness.
But there is another side to John’s answer: eschatological hope. We are already children of God, and when he is revealed we too will be revealed in newness of life. We do not know—we cannot know—exactly what this means. John will not enter into the sort of discussion that the Corinthians seem to have found so attractive, and which led Paul to write to them about the final resurrection in First Corinthians 15. All that he says is that our present state is as children of God, and that what the future holds is even more than that! And then he does give a brief indication of what he expects that future life to be like: “we will be like him, for we will see him.” In other words, any description or conception of life eternal will fall short, for it is life in God and in the likeness of God.