January 25, 2018 Chapel Service — Dr. Stephen J. Nichols

Posted On January 29, 2018

Stephen Nichols
“Tenses of the To Be Verb”
—1 John 3:1-3

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow.



Our text this morning was to be 1 John 3:1-3. I want to pick up a few verses at the end of chapter 2 to just set a bit more of the context and to tee up chapter 3 for us. So, 1 John chapter 2 verse 28 and we will read through chapter 3 verse 3.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

I find this text fascinating for a lot of reasons. It’s a beautiful text. A beautiful text that expresses this beatific vision. It’s a text that expresses our longing, our longing to some day see God in the beauty of His excellency. To see God in His purity, His holiness, His grandeur, His glory. That we long to see Him as He is. It’s the beatific vision. But, I also find this text very fascinating for what it says about us. In fact I see in this text, and I was playing with this a little bit in the sermon title, I ask myself often, who really cares about sermon titles? I don’t know, I found myself this week asking that question out loud; who cares about sermon titles? And, I said it in the company of Dr. Tweeddale and Dr. Tweeddale very quickly said, “I do! I care about sermon titles!” So there’s one person out there that cares about sermon titles. And so, I gave this one the title: The Tenses of the “To Be” Verb.  The Tenses of the “To Be” Verb.

I did what everyone does these days if you have to do serious, solid research, I googled, “tenses of the “to be” verb and I ended up with learning something from Grammarly. According to Grammarly, which doesn’t strike me as a real word, but according to Grammarly, verbs come in three tenses: the past, the present, and the future. Now, I’ve studied Greek, I’ve studied Latin, I’ve studied Hebrew, I remember German, a little bit of French. I remember having a lot more than three tenses. I remember the first time I started studying Greek and I had the luo verb and it was Machan and I learned the “luo paradigm:” λύωλύ, ειςλύ, ειλύ, ομενλύ, ετελύ, ουσιν. And, I thought, “oh this is easy, I got this down, I’m going to be reading Greek with the best of them in no time.” But then there was more paradigms to come. And, I didn’t know what these words mean. “Plu Perfect,” Someone made that up. Some vindictive grammarian made that up just to play with you as you’re learning languages. But Grammarly says there’s only three, so I’ll go with that: the past, the present, and the future.

The first we bump into here is the present tense. The present tense of the “to be” verb. “Who are you?” You could say, “well, I’m a student. Well, I’m a student at Reformation Bible College. Well, I’m a Freshman student at Reformation Bible College. I am a Freshman student at Reformation Bible College who is from Pennsylvania and is currently very excited about the prospects of an NFL football team.” But here’s what John wants to say who you are. And, he says it twice. Did you, did you see this in here? This is who we are, and he says it twice. He says that, “we are,” verse 1, “the children of God.” You are called the children of God and it’s as if John pauses for a second and he steps back and says, “and so we are.” What beautiful statement. What beautiful statement about your status. It’s even better than rooting for a particular NFL football team; this status of being a child of God. It’s not enough for John to say it once, he has to say it twice. Verse 2, “beloved, we are God’s children now.” In the present tense, you are a child of God. Who are you? And, there should be all sorts of things on that page, I know that’s true of you. There’s a lot that goes into your identity, you’re very talented people. Some of you are even omni-competent. But at the top of that list, you are a child of God.

Now, the present tense also implies the past tense, which is not the subject of this passage. But, if we are the children of God now, who were we in the past? And, the answer to that is not good. You were not, at one time, a child of God. In fact, if you want to say you were a child of something, here’s what you were a child of, you were a child of wrath. That’s who we were. We were not united to God, we were not in this filial relationship with the God of the universe. We were cut off, we were alienated, there’s a wide gulf between us and God, an infinite gulf between us and God. And, it wasn’t God’s love that John begins this chapter with, that was the singular reality in our lives, it was God’s wrath that was the singular reality. And, when we just reflect, even for a moment, on who we were, who we are is all the more sweeter, isn’t it? All the better, all the more glorious. When we just reflect for a moment on our status of who we were, the status of who we are now. It just blows our minds, that we are the children of God.

So, we have the present, we are God’s children and we are God’s children now. We have the past, we were once not God’s children, we were children of wrath. But, we also have the future tense and the future tense is even more exciting than the present tense because in the future tense we will be like Him. So, we have this as verse 2 finishes off: “So beloved, we are God’s children now,” but what we will be, the future product it’s yet to be seen, it has not yet come on the stage, it has not yet appeared what we will be. But here’s what it’s going to be like: “when He appears, we shall be like Him because we shall see Him as He is.” Not veiled, not invisible to us, not only visible to us through the works of His providence, not only visible to us through that extension in an anthropomorphic way of the hand of God as it governs and guides our lives. Not simply visible secondarily, but God will be visible primarily. This is Isaiah 6 writ large. And, so we will see Him in the splendor and majesty of His beauty, and His excellency, and His glory and His holiness. And, like some perfect mirror, all of that will be pushed back onto who we are. And, this glorious transformation of our character, our glorification.

One of my favorite words of Jonathan Edwards is the word, “unclogged.” I love that word of his and it comes from a sermon that he preached. It reminds me of some big bucket of Draino or something that you just pour down pipes. But, it comes in a much more spiritual context, it comes in a sermon called, Charity and its Fruits; which was a sermon series that Edwards preached on 1 Corinthians 13. A sermon series on the topic of love. And, he ends that sermon series with his, probably what is the most crescendoing sermon of Jonathan Edwards that he preached, “Heaven is a world of love.” And, he has this great image of the triune God as a fountain of love, just overflowing and being the all encompassing singular reality of the eternal state; and we are there. We are there. Unclogged. All the contaminations, all the impurities, all the rough edges, all of those areas that have not yet conformed to the image are conformed. And all of those rough bits are gone. And, there we are, unclogged in Heaven. Able to not only enjoy the purity and the sweetness of God’s love, but being ourselves a perfect vehicle to reciprocate that love back to God. And so he says, Heaven is a world of love because not a single trace, hint of a clog will be found in you. And, we need this vision don’t we? We get frustrated with ourselves. We get frustrated with our immaturity, we get frustrated with seemingly slow progress towards maturity; those weighty besetting sins. I keep reading this, that when you become a person of a certain age, you have those extra pounds that you just can’t get rid of. And, you feel like that sometimes in the Christian life don’t you? You just have those extra pounds you can’t get rid of, that frustration. And, we long for this day when it all falls off and drops away and we see Him as He is and we are like Him and we are transformed into that glorified image that God intended us to be. It’s a beautiful vision, this beatific vision. We need to reflect on who we are, who we were, and who we will be.

But, there’s a fourth instantiation of the “to be” verb that I’d like to focus on and that I think this verse actually focuses on. When you get into these three tenses: past, present, and perfect, you realize that it is far more nuanced and complex than simply three. Once you get past the “luo paradigm,” you realize how complex the Greek verb truly is. And, the same thing is true of the English verb and the same thing is true of the “to be” verb. So, we have different forms of the present tense. We have, what we would call, the “present continuous” tense. So, it would say something like this: not only the present tense would say, “I am,” or put it in the plural first person, “we are.” But if we were to say in the present continuous tense we would say this, “I am becoming.” “I am becoming,” or we would say, “we are becoming.” We’re not static as the children of God. Yes, we’re far cry from being unclogged in the glorified state that we will someday be in, in the transformed state, but neither are we static in our identity. There’s another nuance even further, and this is the “present perfect continuous” which does not sound normal to me at all, but it would say something like this, “I have been becoming.” Because not only are we not static and are, but are becoming, but we have been becoming. And, we have been becoming ever since that moment in our lives where the Holy Spirit regenerated us and replaced our cold and stoney and dead hearts with a new and a living heart. And, we did that 180 from running away from God as far and as fast as we could and now living towards God. From that precise instant in your life when you became a child of God, since then you have been in a process of becoming. You have been becoming. And there’s something encouraging to taking stock about that, which is to say we need to remember what God has already done in our lives. We need to remember who we were. Every once and awhile I find myself digging through, I don’t save a whole lot of stuff, but I save some files, and I saved just for posterity’s sake some of my papers from my freshman year in college. And, I look back at some of those papers in my freshman year in college and I’m very thankful for where God has brought me to, to this day. I was even reading through some of my margin notes in David Wells’s book No Place for Truth that I wrote in 1993. And, I even shared some of them with David Wells; I really knew everything when I was in 1993. I just had it nailed down. It’s helpful sometimes to remember when we sometimes get discouraged at our progress in the Christian life or we sometimes feel like that conquering of that sin is just slightly past my, my reach right now; it can be very encouraging to remember how far God has brought you. You are not just simply becoming, you have been becoming since the moment God brought you to Himself.

Now, lest you think I’m eisegeting this text, can I show where I get all this from? In verse 3, “everyone who thus hopes,” so pause there for a moment, why does John say hope? It is shorthand for the gospel. Peter does the same thing. “Anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, give him an answer.” And the reason for the hope that is in you is shorthand for the gospel. And, this salvation that we have brought into, rather, have been brought into by God alone will someday be brought to its full fruition. Someday you will be transformed into the glorified person God intended you to be. And, that’s a great hope. And, that’s the truth of the gospel.

“So everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as God is pure.” So, now we have this fourth tense of the “to be” verb because, yes, there is who you are, and it’s worthwhile reflecting on who you were, and yes there is who you will be, but there is who you are becoming now. And, John frames it along the lines of purifying yourself. You have been becoming more pure. You are being purified. There is a present continuous tense. And, let’s think about this for a moment, let’s think about it in a first century context. What better way to set Christians apart from the world in which they live than to talk about purity? Clearly we think this is a component to it of moral or sexual purity. That John is recognizing that the world in which this young church is being born. And, the world in which these young Christians are being thrown out into is the decadent world of first century Rome. And, there will be pulls and pressures and tugs and temptations and the midst of all of this, live differently, and the midst of all of this seek purity and be purifying yourself. This has a lot to do with morality and sexual purity, of course it does, and are we all that different in the twenty-first century? Are we different in any century of the temptation to immorality, the temptation to impurity? Doesn’t Paul very clearly tell us what the will of God is? That you flee like-as fast as you can get out of there. Training for the 5K from sexual immorality.

But, there is more to it than that. It is about sexual purity, moral purity, but I think it also has to do with the integrity to our being. And, notice what the comparison is, that we purify ourselves as He is pure. So, now we’re talking about God and if we’re talking about God or if we’re talking about something far greater, we’re talking about God who is “pure being,” as Aristotle called Him. Absolute, pure, being. If we would frame it another way, we would say, “the full integrity of being.” That God is perfectly God in his Godness and is pure. He is free, absolutely free, from any contamination that would somehow be a detriment or tinge upon His being. It’s not by accident that the Greek word for purity is very close to the Greek word for holiness. Hagias is the Greek word for holy, Hagnia is the Greek word for purity. Now in Latin it becomes sanctus and purus, but in Greek there’s a very close connection. And, are we not thrown back when we see this text, are we not thrown back to the tabernacle? And, are we not thrown back to this instruction of those instruments that are in the tabernacle and there is to be no alloy mixed in with that gold, it is to be pure gold that is in that place where God dwells. And, there’s no accident that there’s a big wash basin outside and so the priest must go through this ritual act of cleansing and purifying his hands so that he could go into the presence of God with clean hands. Because being in the presence of God reflects God Himself. And, is not even glory a word to express the sheer purity of God? And, does not even Melville pick up on this in Moby Dick, those of you who are reading chapter 42 right now? Why is the whale white? That purity of the whiteness of the whale is a sign of the transcendence, the sheer luminosity and purity of transcendent God.

This is a call to sexual purity, no doubt about it, this was a call to being a moral person in a culture of decadence and immorality. In a culture that has long ago decided to define morality democratically than according to some absolute eternal standard; make no doubt about it. But, it’s also a call to be a being of integrity. To be a being of purity. To being a young man and a young woman precisely as God made us to be. And, we won’t get there in this life. That will come. That we will be unclogged, that will come. But, there’s not a contentment here to stay who you are, I hope you catch that. There’s a call here, there’s a challenge here, there’s a call to action in this text. And, the call to action is that present perfect continuous tense, to be becoming pure. Or be becoming purer. Be becoming purer. Because, you are God’s child and as a child, you need to be like your father and your Father is pure.

I skipped the first line of the verse 1 of the chapter, I don’t know if you noticed that or not. I hesitate to talk about love because that is the domain of Dr. Tweeddale, he after all is the love doctor. And, so far be it for me to step on his territory. But, all of these clauses in chapter 3 hinge on the first line of verse 1, all of them, and we didn’t even talk about it. It’s hard to talk about it. John, John can’t even describe it. He doesn’t describe the love, he says, blows your mind, “See what kind of love the Father has given us.” All of this: that we are His children now, that we will see Him face to face, that we will be unclogged, that we should be becoming pure, that we should be obedient to Him, that we should not be conformed to this world, that we should not be driven by the pressures of this world, that we should not give in to our selfish desires and motives, that we should seek others, that we should–all that flows from the love of God. It’s the controlling, straining factor in our lives. All this is made possible because God loves us. What kind of love does God have for us? It’s a love that caused Him to send his Son to die in our place. It’s a love that sent His Son onto a cross. It’s a love that allowed His beloved Son to endure the cup of His wrath. That’s the love that God has for us. All of this, who we are, who we will be, and who we are being becoming; all of this is built upon who God is and His love for us. We are owing it all to God and His love.

Transcripts are lightly edited.