In 1815, a man walked into the small town of Digne, France looking for food and a bed. With plenty of money for a room, he headed to the inn. However, with plenty of rooms for him, the inn told him to leave. Lowering his standard, he headed next for the local tavern. As quickly as he walked in, he was forced out. More and more desperate for a bed, he knocked at the local prison. A voice replied, “Get yourself arrested. Then we’ll open up for you.” Then, rather than give him a glass of water, a family pulled a shotgun on him. He then attempted to sleep in a hut on the side of the road, only to find a menacing set of growling dogs. To which he replied, “I’m not even a dog.” Resigning himself to the cold and the hunger, he laid down on a stone bench to sleep. Mercifully, a woman approached and asked why he slept on a bench rather than the inn. The man replied, “I knocked on every door. Everyone drove me away.” The woman then pointed to a small house on the opposite side of the square and asked, “Did you knock there?”
The man had been rejected at each place because of his yellow passport, which might as well have been in scarlet on his forehead. Though he’d served his sentence, this passport told everyone that he was a former convict. Though he’d attempted to hide this from the previous stops, word spread quickly in Digne.
Therefore, upon arriving at the door the woman told him to knock upon, he immediately blurts out to the inhabitants, “My name is Jean Valjean. I’m a convict. I’ve spent nineteen years in the clink.” As he continued detailing how dangerous he was, the bishop who lived there seemingly interrupts, “Madame Magloire, set one more place.” After Valjean again points out the realities of his passport, the bishop states, “Madame Magloire, put clean sheets on the bed.”
Hugo––the author of this narrative––then describes Valjean’s astonishment, “You mean it! You mean you’ll keep me? You’re not chasing me away? A convict!”
The former prisoner continues his effusive thanksgiving a few paragraphs later, “Monsieur, you are goodness itself. You don’t despise me. You take me into your home. You light your candles for me. Even though I didn’t hide from you where I’ve been or the fact that I’m a poor cursed man.” Hugo then describes the bishop’s response, “You didn’t have to tell me who you were. What do I need to know your name for? Besides, before you told me your name, you had one I knew.” The man opened his eyes in amazement and responds, “True? You knew what I was called?” “Yes” replied the bishop. “You are called my brother.”
Valjean is, as the following pages of Les Miserables describe, staggered by the bishop’s words and actions. Though the rest of the town’s treatment might’ve been closer to what he’d earned, the bishop called him family. And treated him like it.
Our text today is not an unfamiliar one. The Apostle John writes, See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God. This too is entry to a house, though not the one belonging to the bishop of Digne.
In this text, we’re to join John in dropped–jaw wonder. It beckons us to see God’s love, until we see Him, so we might become more like Him. That’s our outline as well.
1. See God’s Love
When we studied 1 John 2:15 (Do not Love the World), we noticed how infrequent commands are in John’s writing. There are only 10 in the whole book. For every 1000 words, there are only 4 imperatives. Yet, the verb in verse 1––translated “see”––is another one.
However, I doubt you’ve read this familiar text as an imperative. Because the tone John employs is one of exultation, not unlike some of Paul’s doxologies. You’re reading in the book of Romans, for example, and while Paul is explaining the sovereign mercies of God, he seemingly interrupts himself in praise, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11).
John does something similar here. One preacher said, “He doesn’t just tell us to know God, he’s knowing him in front of us.” Fresh from describing the anointing these believers received while instructing them to press on and abide in Christ, he forms his own doxology. See what kind of love the Father has given to us!
Because John’s not having a private devotional; his praise is also an invitation. He surmises––rightly––that we’re staring at the wrong object, yet again. Our back is turned to the Atlantic. So, he redirects our eyes. See. Behold. Look.
And what we’re to see is so magnificent that he must employ an idiom to attempt to explain it. When other language fails us, we use idioms. Rather than “It’s raining really, really hard. Seriously, there are lots of rain drops and they’re falling over and over again,” we say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” That makes no sense, of course, but it communicates in our culture.
John does the same thing here. “What kind of love” or “what manner of love” is the idiom. No English translation captures it completely. However, John Stott, among hosts of others, said this idiom meant originally “of what country.” In other words, this love, where did this come from?
You might think of Matthew 8. The sleeping Jesus tells the storm to hush. The wind and the waves recognize his voice. And they obey. I like how the Jesus Storybook Bible describes this scene with the disciples. “Jesus’ friends were quiet. As quiet as the wind and the waves. And into their hearts came a different kind of storm.”
The bible says the disciples said, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matt 8) It’s the same word. Words failed the disciples. They’d never seen a man quite like this. It’s otherworldly. Of what country is this man?
Behold, what kind of love. What manner of love. Of what country is this otherworldly love. The idiom always implies astonishment.
This love, of the Father, is given. It’s lavished on a particular object. See what kind of love the Father has given to us.
John’s not ethereal––neither is the Bible––on the particulars of God’s love. Yes, it’s emotive. But it’s far from fickle, nor is it vague. When God loves, he acts. So, if you were to describe the power of God, you might describe his stilling the storm. But to understand this foreign love of God, John directs our eyes to this: that we should be called children of God.
We know John did not take children language lightly. In his gospel, he makes plain this is not something everyone’s born into. Recall Chapter 1:12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to be called children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John makes clear: this isn’t inherent. God gives the right for some to be called his children.
And 1 John 3:1 says love compels Him to do so. In love, He adopts spiritual orphans. In fact, Spurgeon has a sermon on this text called “Love manifest in adoption.” Most of you know stories like this. Some of you have done it. There’s a child no one else seems to want. At significant cost––emotional and otherwise––parents pursue these children. There’s an extra place at the table. There are clean sheets on the bed. It happens every day. A dear friend of mine from high school (with 4 other healthy kids) just adopted a 10 year old boy from China suffering with Spina Bifida. And if you ask the believing parents why, they’ll often point out that they were once orphans, though they had parents.
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called His children.
John goes on. He adds, and so we are. So, it’s not just that he’s called us his children through adoption (though that’s sufficient for John’s praise), it’s that we’re actually his sons and daughters through rebirth. Not of blood, nor of the will of man, but born of God.
It’s interesting that in John’s most famous text on the reality of the new birth, he speaks with a man who seemingly had it all together. Nicodemus wasn’t among the marginalized. In our day, we’d say he was a success (wealthy, influential, educated). But Jesus says that’s insufficient, asserting, “You must be born again.” Though you seem to have it all together, though you might think you were born ok the first time, you must begin again.
And what God requires, he enables. 1 Peter 1 would say, “According to His great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope.” Apart from regeneration, there is no hope. God doesn’t just call us His children, so we are.
God loved us enough to pursue us in adoption, in rebirth, so that He might be our Father. Human fathers in the Greco–Roman world––acc. to Robert Yarbrough––“were not always affectionate or even equitable. Children might be abused or were often unwanted” For those unwanted children, exposure was not uncommon.
So while we could detail this morning the sacrifice and love of many fathers, we could just as easily talk about a negative history. And this history might be personal. The Father’s love for a child seems foreign, not because it’s overwhelming, but because it’s underwhelming. You don’t have a category for exulting in this. In fact, this image is a hindrance.
In David Powlison’s book, Seeing with New Eyes, he discusses this. One sentence in particular applies to the reality of poor earthly fathers, “None of the words God uses to describe himself have wonderful experiential correlates” For example, God describes himself as a king, but good kings are few and far between. Even the noble––and genteel–– profession like shepherd has its share of ignoble characters. Father is no different, though it’s more personal.
So, while we don’t know the weaknesses of John’s earthly father, we can safely assume he too had a few. Could that be why John rejoiced here?
It’s one thing for Hugo’s bishop to call Valjean his brother; it’s quite another for the God of all creation to call us His children. This is an otherworldly love. You don’t have a category for it. One songwriter notes, “All my life I’ve held on to this fear. It’s the fear that His love is no better than mine.” Could it be that you’re not staggered by His love because you’re not staggered by Him?
See God. See His love.
2. Until We See Him
Though John redirects our eyes to see the love of God, the reality is that we do not see him now. This text includes truths that are clear in the “now” and those that are clearly “not yet.”
First, John describes the reality of the now: the reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Some translations say––pointing back to v.1–– for this reason the world does not know us. This otherworldly love made them otherworldly. In John 17, Jesus said it this way: the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (17:14). These believers were children of the Father. The world would not understand them if they didn’t understand Him. Or this love.
John continues in v.2 Beloved. In short, if God loves his children, John would love them too. After reminding them of that reality, he writes, Beloved, we are God’s children now.
So, because of the alienation of the broader culture, John admonishes them to continue looking at the Father’s love. No matter what men may say, they were children of God. Yarbrough writes, “He sets before his readers a fresh glimpse of the wonder of the Father’s love as an antidote to estrangement and incentive to abide.” This is now.
And yet, there’s a not yet. He continues, And what we will be has not yet appeared. Curtis Vaughan explains, “The privileges and dignity of sonship are already ours, but the full disclosure of the glory of our sonship is yet to be.” We know this. It has to get better.
John continues, But we know that when he appears we shall be like Him. According to 2:28, those who are not his children––at the day of his appearing––will shrink in shame. However, not only will God’s children not shrink in shame at his coming, this text asserts that on that day we will be like him.
That’s not an assertion to gloss over. Curtis Vaughan wrote about an incident on the mission field concerning this text. Some new converts from a remote village were translating this passage into their native language for the first time. When they came upon this statement, “We shall be like him” the scribe laid down his pen and exclaimed, “No! It is too much; let us write, ‘We shall kiss his feet.’”
But, of course, to do so would be to call God a liar. The text couldn’t be clearer.
This incredible assertion is yet another result of God’s otherworldly love for his children. On the day of his appearance, we shall be like Him.
1 John 3 sounds a lot like Paul. Romans 8 has this now and not yet tension as well. There, Paul writes that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom 8:19). Creation waits, groaning for redemption. That’s the not yet. But now, our spirit bears witness that we are His children. And, further, in the now, Romans 8:29 promises those He’s called: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son. God’s resolved to make us like His son.
Elsewhere, Paul connects what we look at to what we will become. In 2 Cor 3, he writes, And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
Therefore, since God’s resolved to conform us to the image of His Son, and one of the ways we’re transformed is in beholding the glory of God, you likely see the connection to 1 John 3: we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. Face to face. In the flesh.
A number of you have asked how my graduation was. For the sake of your time, I’ve just said, “It was great.” But that’s actually a gross understatement.
Of course, one can graduate from school without walking across a stage. UPS knows how to deliver a diploma. One actually earns the degree a few weeks before the ceremony. After successfully defending my dissertation and making a few minor tweaks I wrote the PhD office and asked for the 1000th time, “What do you need from me?” Dr. Jake Pratt then wrote one the most glorious emails of all time, saying simply, “That’s it.” I nearly fell out of my chair. For the first time in quite a few years, there was no more homework. I’d successfully convinced these folks I was smarter than I am. Other than completely going off the rails, nothing could change this. On April 26th, I was done.
However, two weeks and two days later, on May 12th, I was in Wake Forest, NC. My parents who put me on the bus for kindergarten joined me. The lady who put my mom on the bus came along. My wife who unflinchingly supported me throughout years of studying stood there. The professors who taught me were 20 feet away. They called my name and as I walked across a stage my advisor said, while hugging me, “This is it.” The President of the Seminary, the PhD director, and my advisor then hooded me. Our collective voices filled the church with “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”
Now, ask me if I was content on April 26th when the status was conferred. You bet I was. But ask me if that email held a candle to May 12th , celebrating that status in the flesh with people I love. It’s not even close. Why? Because God made us that way. We’re so used to a disembodied reality made possible by technology we often forget God purposed us for this: to relate face to face.
The incipient Gnosticism of 1 John’s day attempted to do the same, that is, separate the spiritual from the physical. But John refused to succumb. The truths of the gospel were at stake. So, he implores us to look in the present toward that which God’s children will see and enjoy in the future. We’ll see him as He is. In the flesh. Face to Face. And we’ll do so with an unsinning heart. Because we’ll be like Him.
That’s the not yet. We’re still in the now.
We see God’s love, until we see Him, . . .
3. So We Might Become More Like Him
However, John makes clear that this future hope––the not yet––speaks to the now. Verse 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
Though we don’t see him yet as he is, we’re told to keep looking. Note, John exults in v. 1, though in v. 2 he admits it will get much better. And John asserts in the third verse, as we look, we’re being purified. Yarbrough notes, “Eventualities are a catalyst for close attention to personal holiness in the here and now.”
Future realities, to the degree we consider them certainties, affect us in the present. If a group of folks are coming over for a cookout tomorrow, you might clean the house a bit. You will make sure you have some charcoal. If Tim Simpson or Ron Childers say it’s raining Thursday, you’ll do something. Students, if you have a test on Friday, your parents hope you act today.
John makes this same case. Everyone who hopes in him purifies himself. More specifically, those who marvel now at the love of God in calling us His children, so that one day we might see Him as He is, are being transformed today.
We become what we behold. As we hope, we’re being purified.
To what degree? John says, we are purified as he is pure.
Again, John’s heard the pure one himself say this very thing. In John 17, Jesus prays, For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
This is yet another fruit of the love of God we’re to behold. And we’re to be astonished by.
This is something of a spoiler, but since Les Mis was published in 1862, I think we’re safe. After Valjean receives the hospitality of the bishop, enjoying a meal with him, they all retire to bed. As you likely know, the impoverished Valjean notices a basket of fine silver in the house. He wakes up in the middle of the night––walks past the sleeping man who called him brother––grabs the silver and darts out the door.
The next day, another knock came at the bishop’s home. Déjà vu, it’s Valjean. But this time, three policemen had him by the scruff of his neck. They’d found him with the bishop’s silver. But before they could get a word out, the bishop strides toward Valjean and says, “Am I glad to see you! Heavens! I gave you the candlesticks too. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?” Hugo says the hardened Valjean begins to shake; he’s stricken. The book says it looked like he was near passing out.
After dismissing the police, the bishop moved toward the offender and just above a whisper, said to him, “Don’t forget, don’t ever forget . . . Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good.”
After leaving the bishop’s home, Hugo says Valjean no longer recognized himself. The old priest’s forgiveness was an assault on his life. Like an owl suddenly confronted by sunrise, the convict had been dazzled and blinded by love. Hugo writes, “One thing was certain, and he himself did not doubt it: he was no longer the same man.”
We might as well carry a yellow passport. Yet, the Lord of creation pursued us in His Son. And even when we continue to sin against Him, He forgives us, lavishing more love upon us by calling us His children.
Thomas Goodwin tells a story of a little boy walking with his Father. The boy knows that the Father loves him. He knows he is the son of the Father. But as they’re walking, suddenly the Father picks his son up, hugs him, and whispers in his ears, “I love you and I will do anything necessary, even die, to give you anything you need.” The boy weeps.
The question is, did the boy get new information? No, one pastor says, the information became new. The truth moved beyond mere cognition. Though the Father didn’t love him more in that moment, the son was more aware of it.
That’s what’s going on here.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” John’s lost in wonder. May we be as well.
 From Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, pages 51–66; translated by Julie Rose.
 Tim Keller, Beholding the Love of God, Redeemer Podcast
 Stott, TNTC, 118.
 Sally Lloyd Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, 242.
 Stott, 118, quoting Plummer.
 Christian George, The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, vol. 1, 152.
 Robert Yarbrough, BECNT, 176
 Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes, 173.
 Andrew Peterson, Just as I am
 Yarbrough, 177.
 Curtis Vaughan, Founders Study Guide Commentary, 75.
 Vaughan, 75.
 Les Miserables, 89.
 Quoted by Keller, Beholding the Love of God.