Love, the reality check
John’s first epistle seeks, among other things, to delineate the marks of a true Christian. And no characteristic features more strongly than love for our fellow believers. John’s teaching on this matter is well summarised in 1 John 3:10-19.
The apostle recognised that the churches to which he wrote contained both true children of God who needed reassurance (see 5:13) and those whose profession was bogus – ‘children of the devil’ who sowed doubt and discord in the local congregations (3:10). We can (and must) distinguish between them. Here’s how.
A commandment to obey
True believers will heed ‘the message … that we should love one another’ (3:11). John is referring, of course, to Christ’s words in John 13:34-35: ‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you …’
But what exactly is new about the ‘new commandment’? Doesn’t Leviticus 19:18 require us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves? Yes, indeed. But the newness of Jesus’ commandment lies in the criterion by which love is judged – no longer ‘as yourself’ but ‘as I have loved you’.
Our passage underlines this new standard: ‘By this we know love because [Christ] laid down his life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’ (3:16). Christ’s death was unique and unrepeatable, but we can still imitate the Saviour by loving our brethren sacrificially.
‘Laying down our lives’ does not mean dying physically, but rather becoming ‘living sacrifices’ in the service of God and our fellow believers (Romans 12:1-2). How far do we love our brethren sacrificially? How much does it cost us – financially, emotionally, spiritually and in terms of time and energy? Are we really loving other believers as Christ loved us?
A condemnation to avoid
Next, John warns in dire terms against ‘unlove’ among Christians. Using Cain’s murder of his brother as an illustration, the apostle asserts that ‘he who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer … no murderer has eternal life abiding in him’ (3:14-15).
Before we dismiss this warning as having no application to us, let us remember Christ’s own teaching in Matthew 5:21-22 – that there is murder in the heart of anyone who despises or ‘writes off’ a fellow believer or rubbishes his reputation. I fear that fratricide is an everyday occurrence in many churches!
Let us rather demonstrate that we are truly God’s children by esteeming others better than ourselves and having the mind of Christ, who humbled himself that he might redeem us from our sins (Philippians 2:3-8).
A comfort to embrace
Warning is balanced by comfort: ‘We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren’ (3:14). It is John’s declared purpose to bring assurance of salvation to true believers: ‘These things I have written to you who believe on the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13).
There are basically two kinds of assurance – direct (or immediate) and indirect (or inferential). John mentions immediate assurance in 3:24: ‘By this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us’.
But Paul elaborates: ‘You received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out “Abba, Father”. The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Romans 8:15-17; see also Galatians 4:6-7).
But lest we be deceived by false spiritual impressions, there is a balancing need for assurance that can be inferred from the work of the Spirit in us. Love of the brethren, says John, is one such evidence of the Spirit’s indwelling, and ‘by this we know that we are of the truth and shall assure our hearts before him’ (3:19).
But here’s the sting in the tail! This assurance can only be ours if we do not ‘love in word or tongue, but in deed and in truth’ (3:18). It is not enough to talk about loving our fellow believers – or even preach sermons about it. There must be deeds of genuine, sacrificial love. This is John’s ultimate reality check.