Love Not the World

John has introduced the factor of Christ’s commands as a test of our being of the truth. He follows with the assertion that this command is not really a “new commandment, but a commandment that you had from the beginning” (2:7). Because he defined that as “the word that you heard,” he means the revelation of Law in the Ten Commandments as summarized in Leviticus 19:18. After giving specific applications of the second table of the commandments for civil society, Moses summarized that application , “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This becomes a major test scattered throughout 1 John in different contexts as an indicator of the new birth, of knowledge of the Father, of true faith in Christ, and of believing the truth.

I. Old Commandment as seen in the Light [7, 8]

A. In what sense does John consider himself as warranted to write a commandment [ cf. 4:6; 5:13; 2:1; 1:4]. John claims to write as an apostle, having been granted by Christ a role of authoritative teaching. He is fully cognizant that his written words are Scripture and are true applications, under the new covenant, of the formerly revealed moral law.

B. What is the implied commandment? The commandment to which he specifically refers is the love of neighbor as given to the Israelites, now seen in the context of the New covenant as relating, not only to ethnic Israel, but to all the children that are born of God (1 John 5:1).

C. How is the commandment old and not new [Deut. 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28-34]  The commandment is old in that it already has been given in specific words and has been isolated by Christ Himself as the sum of the moral law. John’s use of the words, “from the beginning,” (1:1; 2:7, 12, 13, 24; 3:8) and his statement that this commandment “is true in him and in you,” probably drives us toward seeing this commandment as constituting the intrinsic and eternal virtue of God and, thus, the law written on the heart from creation as we were made in his image (Romans 2:14-16). In God, of course this perfect virtuous disposition is eternal and immutable and in us was to be tested and eventually perfected, and so therefore, mutable. The fall, however, though corrupting this law, has not eliminated the basic natural structure that continues to reside as a sense of right and wrong. It serves, therefore, as the foundation for absolute judgment on the final day even of those that have not heard the special revelation either of law or gospel (cf. Romans 5:12-14).

D. How is this old commandment now new? [8; cf 2 Peter 1:19; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18] Also notice John returns to the theme of Light. The commandment is new in that it is pervasively applied as a test of one’s real new covenant standing (3:14, 15). The presence of the Spirit means that the law, now by regeneration and not only in a corrupted creation, is written on the heart and, as a result, will be continually operative as a unifying and purifying factor. (Cf. 2:26, 27 with Jeremiah 31:33, 34 and Ezekiel 36:25-27). Such an internal operation of the Spirit has always marked the elect from the non-elect. None of the remnant of Israel could have believed without regeneration and none could have persevered (Hebrews 11:25, 26; 13:21) without the Spirit’s indwelling. The New Covenant, however, draws together in one body, the church, all the recipients of the new birth. First John 2:18-27  show that this New Covenant operation of the Spirit (“anointed by the Holy One”), is intended to draw into one body all of those, and those only (2:19, 20) who have brought by the Holy Spirit to believe that Jesus is the Christ.

II.. Love dispels hate as light dispels darkness [9-11]

A. False teachers claim to have light but omit the most fundamental reality which is the fruit of love, light, obedience, and union [9]. They might jockey for position in the church (3 John 9, 10) but have no concern for the truth or the well-being of the brothers, but grasp for personal preeminence and authority.

B. Loving one’s brother is the clearest indication of abiding in the light and thus having no cause for stumbling in oneself; i.e. the person’s experience is pure and genuine and will, therefore, persevere   [Hebrews 3:12-14; 12:14-17] [cf. also Hebrews 6:9, 10; 10:39] John’s emphasis on love for the brethren is quite remarkable for the insistent way in which he weaves it throughout his argument. It is connected with determination to avoid sinning (3:10, 11), with assurance as we move toward judgment (3:23; 4:18-20), with a true submission to apostolic truth (4:6, 7), with a heartfelt acceptance of the propitiatory death of Christ (4:10, 11), with a belief that Jesus is the Christ (5:1-5).

C.  Given these powerful applications of the second table of the commandments, we conclude from a lesser to a greater that this fully involves our love also of the first table and its spiritual beauty (Romans 7:14; Psalm 119:75). If John applied the second table so vigorously and thoroughly, then certainly we know that everything applies equally to the command to love God with all one’s heart mind, soul, and strength (1 John 4:12, 20).

III. Assumptions about those to whom he writes [12-14]

A. Little children refers to all (12, 13). In light of John’s consistent reference to believers as children of God, it seems that he has all believers in mind in these two reminders of those blessings that are common to all believers.

1. Sins are forgiven – John continually returns to this for no privileges of sonship or gifts of the Spirit can be granted unless first the issue of justice is cared for and God’s wrath justly inflamed against the sins of the people is fully satisfied.

2. You know the Father –  Through the blood of Christ our knowledge of the Father is sealed. Our fellowship with all believers flows from the common fellowship that Christ has given us with his Father as our Father (1:3). Jesus prayer in John 17, an intercession sealed by his death, specifically set forth the knowledge of God as Father as an important goal of his redemptive work (John 17:11, 21)

B. Fathers refers to mature Christians. A more settled and mature expression of and expectation of heavenly life characterizes the experience of mature Christians. “You have known him who is from the beginning” [2 times]

C. Young Men refers to relatively new believers who are experiencing both the testing of faith and the fresh taste of freedom from the overwhelming bondage of the flesh and of sin.

1. You have overcome the evil one [two times]. The great advantage of Satan has been broken, and though he continually returns after a season, we learn his ways and we discern his true character as tempter, death-dealer, and destroyer. Whereas before, these young men were blinded by the god of this world and could not see the glories of the gospel in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4), that bondage has been broken and now it can be said, “the evil one does not touch him” (5:18).

2. You are strong. This strength of course comes not from any intrinsic virtue or hidden spiritual power but solely from the presence of the Spirit of God in giving new life to the soul by his personal operations of power (Ephesians 1:19; 3:16-19; Philippians 4:13;  Colossians 1:11) and his sanctifying the mind by his effectual application of the means of Christian warfare (Ephesians 6:10, 11). By all these means Paul stood confident at the end that he had “fought the good fight.”

3. “The word of God lives in you.”  John does not refer to  one’s comprehension of  biblical passages or of any number of biblical doctrinal propositions. The kind of knowledge that the Pharisees had of the books of Moses or that Satan has of the attributes of God does not yield saving truth. The word’s living in us occurs when as a two-edged sword swung by the Spirit it so severs all defenses and lays bare all resistance that we are “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-14). By this gracious power we come, in the  words of the First London Confession of Faith [1644], to “see, know and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and not only so, but the excellence of them above all other writings and things in the world.” By them we have been “enabled to cast the weight of [our] souls upon this truth thus believed” in order to embrace by faith the work of Christ in all his saving offices. The Spiritual power of the word on our soul, though not identical with a cognitive knowledge of Scripture, nevertheless, depends immediately and absolutely on such knowledge. We must not expect conformity of heart and affections to truth without the residence of truth in the mind.

IV.  An Alien and Empty Affection [15-17] – In contrast to the commandment to love our neighbor, John gives a negative commandment, “Do not love the world.” If the world were not fallen with all its moral agents hostile to God, and if all its goods were not turned into idols that encourage stinted affections in private spheres that exclude the love of God, then this commandment would not have been given. What gives substance to this command?

A. Love for the World, in its fallenness and moral hostility to the holy commands of God, and Love for the Father are antithetical to each other [15].

1. We create such pockets of refuge, comfort, and pleasure in this world that we are loathe to take any action that would diminish them. This could mean that we refuse to take a stand for righteousness in the culture because it would interrupt the peacefulness of our set form of living.

2. Perhaps a claim to personal freedom would offend a weaker brother and we love our freedom more than we love our brother; is this not a love of the world (Romans 14:20-23)?

3. Perhaps the doctrinal status quo proves to be wrong and actually damaging to the health of the church, but a challenge to it would be too costly and generate personal discomfort, loss of friendship, and an interruption of personal peace. Is this not a love of the world that excludes love for the Father?

4. Often we are part of deeply entrenched systems that generate and thrive on unrighteous acquisition and oppression. Dealing with these is difficult, but love of the Father calls for a discipleship that challenges the established patterns of worldly security (Acts 4:17-22; James 4:1-4; 1 Peter 4:4-6).

B. Definition of “World” – compare these to the temptations of Eve (Genesis 3:6) and of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11)

1. Lust of the flesh – The most grotesque manifestations of this find clear illustrations in Scripture (e.g Romans 1:24-32; 1 Peter 4:3, 4; Matthew 5:27-30; Ephesians 4:19) and are so rampant in the world that we often identify worldliness and lust solely with those. Drunkenness, gluttony, and improperly executed sexuality dominate, but just as destructive are the internal manifestation of “bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice” (Ephesians 4:31). The fallenness of humanity seems to concentrate its destructive powers on that affection that is to be the highest and most guarded, the one flesh relationship initiated by God as marriage between a man and a woman, never to be violated by infidelity or broken by divorce. The systemic and increasingly dangerous destruction of the family unit in America can be traced directly to unmortified lusts of the flesh. In giving the most comprehensive list of the destructive operations of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), Paul lists fifteen separate manifestations with the addition “and things like these.” The list includes both the externally destructive actions as well as the internally corrosive attitudes.

2. Lust of the eyes – The dazzling world of things to possess deceives us with a sense of well-being in the comforts of this world. Affluence, left unchecked as a desirable end, often dulls our spirits to the privilege, necessity, and duty of private prayer and the true and unchanging beauty of a holy life lived for the glory of heaven. The lust of the eyes drives us to hot pursuit of the security of earth. (Matthew 6:25-34).

3. Pride of Life – The goal of being successful in a chosen field of work has an element of real stewardship in it when pursued to the glory of God. Excellence is a goal to drive us to develop skills and gifts as a manifestation of the many-faceted grace of God (Philippians 1:9-11). To settle for screaming and bellowing as singing is treason to the Lordship of Christ as the giver of the human voice. Every aspect of human capacities of mind, voice, creative impulse, dexterity, unusual coordination, extended mental concentration, tenacity in experimentation with the natural order of the world, etc. should be pressed for as full development as possible with the realization that we are exploring the capacities that God has placed within the human race as created in his image.  We can rejoice as humans reflecting the divine glory when Leontyne Price sings, when Willie Mays makes an over-the-head catch on a dead sprint to center field in the Polo Grounds, when Salk and Sabine discover cures for polio, when Jefferson and Madison et al give a mature expression of political theory that maximizes human freedom yet under the rule of law. None of this should be minimized as anything less than a manifestation of divine wisdom. Motivational factors, however, in the moral connection of our hearts to such grand phenomena can create a worldliness called the pride of life. When done in order to evoke the praise of men for ourselves apart from any submission to the glory of God, the reward comes quickly, often superficially, and is soon done. (Matthew 6:5-18)

C. The corruptible and transitory compared to the unchangeable and eternal—“The world is passing away with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

1. The consistent apostolic witness corroborates John’s assertion. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, gives a clear proposition that “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” Obviously the images show that a spiritual sense in the soul is a reality; unseen things can have an even greater claim on the mind than things that are palpable to the five senses.  Again, Paul concurs, “For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Peter insists on this same state of mind, one that must be cultivated carefully in light of the truths revealed: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness” (2 Peter 3:11).

2. This is an application of the doctrinal principle that true life is possessed only by the triune God and comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ—“the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was made manifest to us” (1 John 1:2).. He only is self-existent and he gives “to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). “In him was life and the light was the light of men” (John 1:4).

3. This is particularly the case in issues of salvation, for the world is under the curse, death has come in the form of moral rebellion, and only those that have placed their hope in the Living God will experience the life that is true life (1 Timothy 6:19). As John reiterated in 5:13, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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