Letters From an Old Man, Part 8

On Loving One Another, 1 John 3:11—24

So far, John has been telling readers that knowledge of God must be accompanied by right conduct.  Proof that one is “in Christ” is tested by our conduct.

We have learned that there are two families living on the earth today:  God’s family and the Devil’s family.  Our conduct reveals which family we belong to.  If we behave righteously and endeavor not to sin, our conduct shows that we are part of God’s family.  If we continue to live in sin without a second thought to God’s will, then we cannot be part of God’s family; we must be part of the Devil’s family.  For John, there is not gray in this; it is all black and white.

In the section before us, John adds yet another test; the “love test,” which will prove that one is of God or not.

1.  Love and hate, 3:13—17

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?

One of the things you will notice about John’s writing style is his frequent repetition of words and phrases.  He does this so that his readers, including us, will remember what he is trying to teach.  Here John repeats a command he gave a chapter ago that they “love one another.”  Concerning that command, John says—

This is the message you heard from the beginning…

This is simply John’s way of saying that they needed to heed the message they first heard; when they first heard the Gospel they learned about this mutual love within the Body of Christ.  It seems the false teachers disregarded that admonition.

Of note, however is the kind of love believers should be manifesting.  John makes it very clear that believers need to love one another, in other words, their strongest, purest love should be reserved for and manifested to other believers.  It is the thought of mutual love John has in mind, and mutual love is only possible within the Body of Christ; mutual love between Christians and the world is impossible because, as John says in verse 13—

…the world hates you.

What was it about his brother, Abel, which fed Cain’s hatred so?   Darby comments—

That hatred of a brother is fed by the sense that the brother’s works are good, and one’s own are evil.

Indeed, the very root of Cain’s hatred was a disagreement about how to approach God!

The violent deed was only the last expression of that antipathy which righteousness always calls out in those who make evil the guiding principle of their life.  (Brooke)

John’s choice of words is very illuminating.  He answers his rhetorical question as to why Cain killed his brother by saying—

his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.

The Greek word for “evil” is the same word John used to describe Satan previously in this letter, suggesting that Cain’s evil actions originated with Satan.  However, the word for “righteous” is a term that John used to describe Jesus.  In other words, by their actions, Cain proved that he belonged to Satan, Abel to God.

Immediately following his example of Cain, John makes the statement—

Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. (vs. 13)

While it is natural—if not always evident—for believers to love one another, it is just as natural for the people of the world to hate Christians.  John does not say that the world will always hate believers; it certainly did not always hate Jesus.   When is the world’s hatred toward believers made manifest?   Whenever the Church takes a stand in defense of the Word of God which is contrary to what the world wants, the world will respond in hatred toward the Church.  Barker—

Whenever the community of faith acts so as to expose the greed, the avarice, the hatred, and the wickedness of the world, it must expect rejection.

At this juncture, we might have expected John to say that believers should love the sinful world in response to their hatred.  This is, after all, what God did in sending Jesus.  But John is teaching about the evidence of Christian character, not evangelism.  That is a topic for another day.  Love for the Body of Christ, verse 14, is a better and more powerful piece of evidence than love for the sinful world because if a professed Christian cannot find it in his heart to love his brother in the faith, how can he be expected to love those outside the faith?

Verse 15 is somewhat startling.  Is John equating hatred with murder?  John is indirectly referring back to Cain, the man who hated his brother so much he killed him. On whether or not hatred always leads to murder, Calvin’s comments are helpful—

If we wish evil to happen to our brother from some one else, we are murderers.

Jesus Himself made the connection in Matthew 5:21—22, were we read—

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

John’s point and Jesus’ point is a simple one:  in the heart, there is no difference between hatred and murder.  To murder someone resulted in Cain being excluded from his family.  To hate a brother in the Lord excludes one from the family of God.  Same result.

The perfect example of love is found in Jesus Christ.  In Christ, we are able to see what love is; we can see its essence and its highest expression.  The lesson in love does not come from what Jesus said, but rather His actions, namely, the giving of His life.   The reason Christ’s death is the supreme example of agape love is because His death, though sacrificial, was not passive.  Jesus died purposely:  He laid down His own life.  If Jesus made the decision to give His life for us, what then is our obligation to Him?  Francis Havergal asked that question in the form of a hymn—

I gave My life for thee,

My precious blood I shed,

That thou might’st ransomed be,

And quickened from the death;

I gave, I gave My life for thee;

What hast thou given me?

John supplies the answer—

[W]e ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. (vs. 16b)

That, of course, is an extreme demonstration of love.  In verse 17, John gives an every day example of love:  if we see a brother in need and are able to help that brother, then we are obligated to do so.  That is an expression of the kind of love Jesus showed.  In fact, if we study carefully how Jesus manifested love, we notice that sacrifice and suffering were involved.  True love must always cost something.  Even if it is vicarious suffering; we hurt because a brother is hurting.  We agonize over a brother’s unmet needs.  When we see a fellow believer hurting, will we go even to death’s door to give them comfort?  If so, we understand what real love it.

2.  Love revealed, 3:18—24

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.

Verses 19 and 20 are most difficult in the Greek and not easily understood within the context of John’s stream of thought, which explains why there are different translations of these two verses and such a wide range of interpretation.  My view is that verses 19 and 20 are linked to verse 18 in this way:  How do I know that my actions, that are expressing my love for the body of Christ, are proper and adequate?  Am I doing enough?  Is there something else I should be doing that could benefit the Body of Christ in a greater way?   When we who take our Christian walk seriously are given to self-doubt and when our hearts condemn us for not doing enough or not being all that we should be, John says God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.   God is greater in the sense of caring and understanding and God knows the very worst about us and loves us anyway.  We may have a clear conscience before God because nothing is hidden from Him; He sees all and He knows all.  Our hearts may be at rest in God’s presence for He knows the deepest and the sincerest intent of our hearts and He is able separate real conviction and imagined confusion

Perhaps John had Psalm 139 in mind when he wrote verses 19 and 20—

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.  (vs. 23—24)

With verse 21, Pastor John acknowledges what we all know to be true:  our hearts do condemn us.  Many Christians struggle with.  If you never have, I would question your relationship with God.   But we cannot stay in that state of condemnation.  We need to get a grip on our emotions and our hearts and remember the objective truths of God’s Word

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?  (Jeremiah 17:19)

We are able to stand before God in confidence because our hearts do not condemn us.  This is a common thought in the New Testament.  The writer to the Hebrews wrote about this same kind of confidence—

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16)

Understanding what the word “confidence” means is key in understanding the believer’s position in Christ.  The word “confidence” originally described the full citizen of a Greek city-state who had the democratic right to speak freely (Kistemaker).  That is how the believer may approach God:  we are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we may come to God and speak freely without any fear because it is our right as a citizen of His Kingdom.

That is a powerful thought!  But verse 22 catapults John’s thoughts into the stratosphere of profound concepts:

….and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.

This is a truly astounding promise, but we have to read it properly or we may get the wrong idea.  John is not saying that obedience to God’s commands guarantees an answered prayer.  The genuine believer obeys God’s commands out of a grateful heart for all that God has done for them. John is saying that when we obey God we are doing what pleases Him, and that rules out any notion of merit.  Pleasing God comes from our love and loyalty to Him.  Kistemaker—

The basis for answered prayer is not blind obedience but a desire to please God with dedicated love.  And God fulfills our requests because of the bond of love and fellowship between father and child.

The last two verses of chapter 3 serve to emphasize what John has been saying in his letter, and also gives us the command that is basis of answered prayer—

… believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.

Today, we are expert at tearing each other down.  We nit pick each other to death.  We subtly put down those we are supposed to love the most.  If we would claim to love Jesus, we must also love others who make the same claim.

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