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If you’ve had or have small children, you’re likely very familiar with the following scenario. Your son wearing his father’s baseball cap as he’s about to run into a wall he can’t see. Your daughter tottering about in her mom’s shoes. It’s cute and heartwarming to see their attempts to imitate you or your spouse, but their efforts are all the more striking for a reason we often don’t recall. Our children, on the basis of both nature and nurture, are bound to grow up to look and act just like us. Yet, they see us and want to do all they can to be like us as we are now, headwear and footwear included. They’re eager to grow up. They just can’t wait.
There’s a similar dynamic at work in 1 John 3:3: “And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3, NRSV). Here, John writes to Christians about the relationship between being God’s true children and one’s ethical or moral life as such. Understanding what John says here is key for us as we seek to live in light of who Christ is and who we are now (as well as who we are not yet) in Him. To do this, we need to look closely at the nature and content of the hope that all God’s true children are said to possess in Christ. This will help clarify what it means to say that all God’s children purify themselves and what connection this has with the fact that Christ is pure.
To begin, John clearly identifies God’s true children as possessing “this” hope. He wants us to recall the specific promise of which he just spoke in the preceding context. From the very beginning of the letter, he has addressed his Christian readers as “children.” More than simply a title of affection, this term leads to the great expression in 3:1: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” This speaks of God’s adoption of us through our union with Christ, His beloved and only begotten Son. All the benefits and blessings Jesus received as God’s Son with respect to His humanity are now shared and held by all those who have been placed in Him and united with Him through faith. As Paul says, “If children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).
Yet, if we are joint heirs with Christ and thus began to rule with Him when He ascended to the Father, why do we continue to suffer the world’s opposition? Why do some in the church even end up leaving it for the world’s promises instead? Our experience often doesn’t seem to reflect the facts of redemption. John begins to explain this in 3:1–2. First, if the world opposes God and refuses to recognize His kingship, we can expect only the same treatment for His children, and John’s comments earlier in 2:18–19 remind us that those who have apostatized were always aligned with the world and never truly with Him.
Second, John stresses the “now and not yet” nature of our adoption in Christ. He reiterates what he just said previously, that we are indeed God’s children now, but then also adds that what we will be has not yet been revealed. This prompts two obvious questions: when, then, will this be revealed, and what will be true of us in the future that isn’t true of us now as God’s children? John answers both questions compellingly. He points out that it is when Christ is revealed, meaning His second coming, that we will be like Him, and that this will be so because we will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).
Although Jesus as God’s Davidic Son received an eternal kingdom and began to rule over an inaugurated new creation beginning with the church, aside from His resurrection and ascension, this new creational kingdom rule is largely exercised inwardly and invisibly. Only when Christ returns to consummate His rule and bring about a new heavens and earth will God’s redemption of the entire created order be complete, fully public and visible. It will be when we see Christ presiding as King over the irreversible new creation that we, too, as God’s adopted sons and daughters, joint heirs in Christ, will be resurrected, completely purified and so gloriously endowed to fully and finally rule with Him for all the world to see. This is the “hope” in Christ that all God’s children possess in the face of the world’s opposition and the apostasy of false siblings.
What does it mean, then, that all those who have this particular eschatological (ultimate, final, last days) expectation purify themselves, just as Christ is pure? The verb purify is often used in the New Testament and Greek translations of the Old Testament to describe the cleansing that makes something or someone acceptable for use in God’s presence and the temple (e.g., Ex. 19:10; Num. 8:21; John 11:55; Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18). Here in 1 John 3:3, as elsewhere (James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22), it is used with an ethical connotation describing moral purity. Those who have the certain hope of being resurrected and glorified to join the Son in His everlasting rule live a life of ethical cooperation with the Holy Spirit to be made pure, outfitted just as Jesus is for the Father’s holy use.
We are God’s children now and so live as new creations inwardly. Yet, we know that our full inheritance is to be like the resurrected Jesus in His glorified purity. We can liken this, then, to our opening scenario. Like children who clothe themselves just as their parents are clothed, believers who have this hope purify themselves just as Christ is pure. They pursue holiness even now because they know who they are and whom they will be like. They’re eager to grow up. They just can’t wait.