WALKING IN THE LIGHT

NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

By Dr. Robert R Seyda

FIRST EPISTLE OF JOHN

CHAPTER THREE (Lesson XCIV) 11/22/21

3:20 But if we have a bad conscience and feel that we have done wrong, the Lord will sense it even more, for He knows everything we do.

Colin G. Kruse (1950) notes that when the Apostle John says, “this is how we know that we belong to the truth,” he urges his readers to open their hearts towards their fellow believers in need. How else will they know they belong to the truth unless their love finds practical expression in helping those in need? So, to affirm that they belong to the truth, the readers must “persuade their hearts in the presence of God” not (“set our hearts at rest in His presence,” as the NIV has) so they do not yield to any hardness in their hearts and refuse to offer material assistance. They should undertake this persuasion whenever their conscience condemns them, that is, whenever their hearts object to legitimate calls to share when they have something to give.

Now, to assist his readers in persisting in the process of self-persuasion, the Apostle John provides them with a compelling reason: “For God has a bigger heart, and He knows everything.” While the NIV does not translate it as such, this verse is a conditional sentence (literally, “because, if our heart condemns us, God’s heart is more compassionate than ours and knows all He needs to know about us.” In this context, the statement “God is greater than our hearts”). implies that God does not have to deal with the callousness found in some human hearts. On the contrary, His generosity is far more giving; His compassion towards the needy exceeds our feelings of sorrow. Any unkindness of the heart will not go unnoticed by an omniscient God. As was the case among the Israelites,[1] so too here, God knows what His people can do and judges them accordingly.[2]

Bruce B. Burton (1954) states that the vagueness of the statement “God is greater than our hearts” has prompted two interpretations. Some see it as consoling believers whose hearts (or consciences) condemn them of sin in general. Thus, they hold on to the sign of sonship – God’s Love. Others think that the phrase “God is greater than our hearts” intensifies John’s warning. The condemning voice of conscience merely echoes the judgment of God, who comprehends each life. Thus, believers cannot gloss over or excuse their sins as insignificant. In both cases, believers can come confidently to God by claiming God’s forgiveness through the Anointed One, recognizing that His grace and mercy outweigh their guilt.

Because God knows everything, says Burton, Christians can trust that He thoroughly understands and will forgive their sins and help them grow in the areas where they need it most.[3] Then what should believers do with the gnawing accusations of their consciences? They should not ignore them or rationalize their behavior, but they should set their hearts on God’s Love. When they feel guilty, they should remind themselves that God knows their motives and actions. His voice of assurance is stronger than the accusing voice of conscience. God will not condemn His children, for whom His Son died.[4] [5]

Daniel L. Akin (1957) suggests that verse twenty can be tricky and challenging to interpret, at least when it comes to the details. However, its primary meaning is clear. Even though the Anointed One paid the ransom for all our sins by His perfect atoning work, we may experience a condemning heart or guilty conscience, something the great and omnipotent God does not want us to have. So, when our conscience sends us on a guilt trip, look in faith to the God who is more dependable than our hesitant heart and assures us of total and complete forgiveness through the perfect work of Jesus. Thus, we can claim once more the wonderful truth of forgiveness.[6] Therefore, The Apostle John addresses this guilty conscience and the way to deal with it. In verse twenty, he does so in the context of the omniscience of God, and in verses twenty-one and twenty-two, he will do so with the omnipotent God in mind.[7]

Some modern commentators may view these and the following verses as somewhat linguistically complicated. It may arise from the Greek spoken in John’s environment. On the other hand, what may seem to us to be complex Greek may merely be conversational. But whatever the case, we must do what we can with it. By being genuine in practicing love for our fellow believers in the truth, we can know that we are of the truth. It demonstrates our love for the truth.

So Akin points out that once they can be satisfied that their love for their brethren is genuinely hands-on, they can know that they are of the truth.  Therefore, they can convince themselves that all is right in their hearts and consciences between them and God as He looks on. Doing so in His presence indicates the whole inner being, including reason, will, conscience and emotions. The point here is not that love for the brethren saves, but it reveals that they are within the flow of truth and love the truth. It is among the faithful brethren that the truth is held and preached, and to love them and not the false prophets is to demonstrate a willing acceptance of the facts they teach.[8]

David Legge (1969) points to verse twenty, where the Apostle John speaks to the condemned Christian. He says: “For if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.” So, let’s first consider the condemned Christian. Pastors and evangelists find it easier to deal with saved believers or unsaved sinners than those unsure about which one they are.

The difficulty comes in pastoral counseling, says Legge, when you get people who claim salvation when it’s blatantly obvious, they do not. Then others doubt their salvation when they have every reason to believe that they are born again. So now John’s writing is all about assurance. John has not only been exposing false teachers whose salvation doctrine is questionable, but seeking to bring confidence to the true sheep of God. This was especially true in churches influenced by false teachers who made them doubt their salvation.[9] Unfortunately, this phenomenon continues until now.

Douglas Sean O’Donnell (1972) finds that verse twenty provides two reasons to put our whole weight on this olive branch of assurance: “God is greater than our heart” and “He knows everything.” When our hearts accuse us (“you failed the love test . . . again!”), God’s caring omnipotence and omniscience provide CPR (“Christ’s Purifying Restoration”). When our hearts are weighed down with guilt, John reassures us that “the great God, the great King above all gods,[10] eases the burden. When we agonize over our lack of love, “the place to turn is not farther inward but outward and upward toward God.” If our hearts are troubled, we should call to mind the greatness of God, a distinction that descends to offer forgiveness each and every time we confess our sins.[11]

Moreover, recall the God who “knows everything.” While the Bible applies God’s omniscience as a warning to refrain from sin, [12] here it is a comfort for the sin-stained believer. God is not blind to our unloving actions. He knows every detail of every sin. He knows that even the littlest lack of love carries the weight of eternal condemnation. But (here is the Gospel according to John!) God still forgives. Accept His forgiveness through the Anointed One. Rejoice in the renewed relationship. Pray, and return to practicing righteousness.[13] [14]

3:21-22 Dear friends, if we don’t feel guilty in our hearts and minds, we can come to God in confidence without fear. And we will receive from Him whatever we ask because we obey Him and do the things that please Him.

EXPOSITION

Again, the Apostle John takes a deep breath and begins making another critical point in his letter. But the reader must understand this verse in its context. Just to believe that when we come to Him without hesitation, He will give us whatever we want is in error. Nothing could be further from the truth. John places a qualifier on that statement by saying that we come to Him without any misgivings because we obey Him and that all we do is done to His honor, praise, and glory. So, whatever we ask of Him must fall into that same frame of mind. You may feel free to ask God for anything but don’t expect any gifts under the spiritual Christmas tree if what you’ve asked for will not bring Him all the glory and praise.

As wise man Job once said, you will find joy in serving the Almighty just by looking to Him for directions and decisions.[15] In fact, the Psalmist said that when God looks at what we are doing or what we want from Him, if it is for our good, especially when we have not been honest and authentic with everyone, then allow us to be dragged into the dust and end up in the grave.[16] That is a powerful statement, but it shows how sincere David wanted to be what the LORD expected him to be. And David’s thoughts were echoed by another Psalmist.[17]


[1] Deuteronomy 15:7-9

[2] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, op. cit., Kindle Edition.

[3] Cf. 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

[4] See Romans 8:1; Hebrews 9:14-15

[5] Barton, Bruce B., 1, 2, & 3 John (Life Application Bible Commentary), op. cit., pp. 77-78

[6] 1 John 1:9

[7] Akin, Dr. Daniel L., Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary), op. cit., Kindle Edition.

[8] Pett, Peter: Truth According to Scripture, op. cit., loc. cit.

[9] Legge, David: Preach the Word, 1,2,3, John, loc, cit., Part 11

[10] Psalm 95:3 NIV

[11] 1 John 1:9

[12] Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:14; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5

[13] 1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10

[14] O’Donnell, Douglas Sean, 1–3 John (Reformed Expository Commentaries), op. cit., Kindle Edition.

[15] Job 22:26

[16] Psalm 7:3-5

[17] Ibid. 101:2

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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