In this is love; not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. – 1 John 4:10 (NET)
The author of the works that bear the name of “John” has a great deal to say about the love of the Creator God, and about the way in which that love was shown forth into the world. The most famous of these statements, of course, is to be found in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, where so many have been able to joyfully read “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). In that same presentation of the words of Jesus, the love of that God is juxtaposed with evil, when Jesus says “the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light and does not come to the light” (3:19b-20a).
In the first letter of John, the author appears to take up the theme that had been set forth in the third chapter of the Gospel of John, pitting the love of the Creator God against darkness and evil, writing that “The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). This said, it is quite natural to think of the works of the devil as that which is productive of darkness and evil. The revelation (sending) of the Son of God, of course, was a demonstration of the love of Israel’s God; and as has been indicated in the passage with which this study begins, this sending was for the purpose of being the atoning sacrifice for sins.
Now, if the author has already stated that the Son of God was sent to destroy the works of the devil, then it would seem to be appropriate to replace “atoning sacrifice for our sins” with “destroy the works of the devil”. This begs the question as to what exactly should be considered to be the works of the devil? More importantly, to what does the author refer when he makes mention of such things? Returning to the third chapter, the author writes that “The one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as Jesus is righteous (3:7b). This is what immediately precedes “The one who practices sin is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (3:8a). Thus the author would seem to be here defining sin as the opposite of righteousness.
The question then becomes, “what is righteousness?” In the author’s day, “righteousness” was properly understood as “covenant faithfulness.” One who was righteous was one that carried the status of being faithful to the covenant requirements of Israel’s God. Contrary to that, sin would be defined as the violation of those covenant requirements. Here, Jesus is spoken of as one who is righteous, as the author proclaims Jesus as one who carries the status of “faithful to the covenant,” demonstrating covenant faithfulness.
In contradistinction to one that is faithful to the covenant, the author presents the example of “the devil,” along with those who are “of the devil.” It is said that they practice sin, or unfaithfulness to the covenant, with this occurring “from the beginning.” It is upon this definition of terms that the author then asserts the mission of the Son of God, which was “to destroy the works of the devil.”
Before getting to that point, however, the author has made a few other statements that must be taken into consideration. Backing up to the end of the second chapter, use is made of the terms that have now been more properly defined. They are even used in the context of “son-ship,” as the author writes “If you know that He is righteous, you also know that everyone who practices righteousness has been fathered by Him” (2:29). Then, in anticipation of what will be written in the fourth chapter, as the context for understanding the author’s point is provided on a narrative basis rather than through interpretative understanding based on a selective and subjective isolation of verses, one there reads “See what sort of love the Father has given to us; that we should be called God’s children---and indeed we are!” (3:1a)