What’s my problem?
Does verse 19 start something new leading on into the verses which follow it? That seems the most natural, but what about those translations where verse 19 does not start a new paragraph? In those other versions, this 19th verse is right in the middle of a paragraph making it meat and potatoes, not the leading point. Also, verse 19 does not smoothly mesh with the verses that follow. So, then, could it be that verse 19 looks back on what came before? Welcome to a teacher’s struggle. These are the background bumps I have to drive over as I put a lesson together.
If verse 19 is backward-looking, then verse 20 suggests that actions bolster confidence and help our hearts to rest.
If verse 19 is forward-looking, then verse 20 says we should forcefully acknowledge our belief in God’s words and promises. Building out from there John would be saying to overcome self-condemnation by telling our hearts that God knows my allegiance to him and is faithful to his promises.
Surely hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Biblical scholars have been involved in the translation of John’s Greek letters into 20th and 21st Century editions. Some of them have concluded that verse 19 fits better with the verses which lead up to it and others those which follow.
So, where does that leave me, and by extension, those in my class? I am a Biblical teacher, but cannot consider myself a member of the scholarly class.
What about actions and faith?
As I have pondered this, I think the best conclusion to draw is this: Love by actions while simultaneously acknowledging that God knows everything.
The deeds a Christian does and the self-condemnation that Christian may experience are both known to God. By looking at it this way we can sidestep the uncertainty of what John exactly meant all those centuries ago going right around it into the excellence both viewpoints offer to us.
Going beyond the placement of verse 19 in the paragraphs offered to us let us look more at the second perspective. God is a higher authority than our hearts. While the judge in me (my conscience) has some authority, a higher court exists. An appellate court we could call it. Who presides there? The Honorable God Almighty. He, as judge over that higher court, is fully informed. He possesses all evidence. He properly fits your actions to your motivations. He grasps the finer nuances of your background, struggles, victories, defeats and graciously holds them all. Having been there in your difficult times, helping, counseling, guiding, strengthening, reassuring he is more suited than any, ourselves included, to properly quell or assign condemnation.
Rewind a little.
Verses 11 to 15 posit Cain as an exemplar of Satan.
Verses 16 to 18 provide Jesus as the exemplar of God.
Verses 11 to 15 say, “Don’t be like Cain.” His heart was wicked. His rebellious heart offered an unacceptable sacrifice. He rejected grace, excelled in hate and killed his brother.
Verses 16 to 18 say, “Be like Jesus.” His heart was righteous. He displayed grace, excelled in love, evoked hate from the world, living all the way to the cross. That was his trail and trial tying him back to Cain and Abel’s flash point. Jesus was the acceptable sacrifice to which animal sacrifice pointed.
As I mentioned in that context last week: Hate extinguishes / Love creates.
Back to actions and faith.
When we doubt because our heart condemns us then we will do well to look upon the deeds we have done after the example of Christ and cast ourselves upon God as the highest authority.
19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. (1 John 3:19-20–ESV)
That is confidence in God.