VERSE 3: The First Test
This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commands.
The proof that someone knows the Word of Life, who was from the beginning, whom John heard, saw, and touched, and who he is now proclaiming in this apostolic epistle is that they keep the commands of Christ.
“This is how we know”: the first point being made here stands squarely against the post-modernist flood of skepticism that has submerged our culture today; we can know that we know Christ. The Word of Life’s truth can be heard, seen, and touched in our life by the effects of walking with God in the light.
This proposition assumes certain realities about the nature of God:
1. While God is incomprehensible to finite beings because he is infinite, he is not inapprehensible; God can be known.
2. The knowledge of God is not abstract because God is not abstract; the knowledge of God is personal.
3. God makes himself accurately known in creaturely truths that can be actually, effectively, and truthfully known by finite beings even though God’s truths are always incomprehensible.
While it is impossible for us to grasp the infinite realities of what it means to “know God”, the reality of knowing God is not inapprehensible to us; we can know that we know God.
Another point being made here is that we need to examine ourselves to test whether or not we are in Christ. This means both that God wants us to have the assurance of knowing that we know him and that he has given us specific tests by which we can verify that the Word of Life really does abide in us in truth.
This point warrants particular personal attention in our lives today because of how many counterfeit tests have been offered in its place. “Emotionalism”, “mysticism”, “confessionalism”, “creedism”, “tongues”, “prayer”, “prophecy”, “signs and wonders”, and the many other tests that we hear many pastors offering today are not the tests that God gives us to verify whether or not we truly know him.
“That we know him”: this continues the proposition that “If we say, ‘We have fellowship with him’” (1:6) and introduces the idea that the nature of God determines God’s knowability. Because God is light, we must walk in the light to know God. The denial of God’s knowability stems from a sinful personal and moral situation, but because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, our blindness towards God has been cured and we can see him and know that we know him (See Matthew 5:8).
Didymus the Blind (c. 313–398) who was an Alexandrian exegete, wrote:
Often in the Scriptures the word know means not just being aware of something but having personal experience of it. Jesus did not know sin, not because he was unaware of what it is but because he never committed it himself. For although he is like us in every other way, he never sinned. Given this meaning of the word know, it is clear that anyone who says that he knows God must also keep his commandments, for the two things go together.
Unlike the Gnostics, who taught that the knowledge of God came through “mystical insights” or by “direct visions of God”, the true knowledge of God comes from covenantal union with him through personal fellowship with Christ in the word of God.
An example of Gnostic thought on this subject that will expose much heretical modern “Christian” doctrine today can be seen in Corpus Hermetica 10.5–6:
Not yet are we able to open the eyes of the mind and to behold the beauty the imperishable, inconceivable beauty, of the Good. For you will see it when you cannot say anything about it. For the knowledge of it is divine silence and annihilation of all senses.… Irradiating the whole mind, it shines upon the soul and draws it up from the body, and changes it all into divine essence (cited in Dodd Johannine Epistles, p. 30).
The true knowledge of God does not come from mystical ascent, but from holy experience of God in personal fellowship with Christ through the word of God.
Ephesians 4:20-24 (CSB) But that is not how you came to know Christ, 21 assuming you heard about him and were taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to take off, your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on, the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth.
True knowledge of God is the result of our being justified by the atoning sacrifice of Christ and entering the covenantal relationship with him as our Heavenly Advocate, by whose grace we can enter into the presence of God’s throne!
“If we keep his commands”: the necessary condition of knowing God is the atoning sacrifice of Christ and his heavenly advocacy on our behalf; “keeping his commands” is the result of our blood-bought reconciliation with God. As “fellowship with one another” is the result of walking in the light (1:7), so our obedience and union with the divine nature of God is the result of Christ’s atoning sacrifice and heavenly ministry.
There is an important contrast between 1:6 and 2:3 that we need to pay close attention to:
1:6 – “if we claim to have fellowship and walk in the darkness”
2:3 – “we know that we know him if we keep his commands”
There is a striking contrast between these verses as we see that the opposite of walking in darkness is keeping Christ’s commandments.
Those who stray from the path of God’s word have wandered into darkness, yet those who keep his word walk in the light:
Psalm 119:105 (CSB) Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.