Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 3:16–24
The Church’s Hallmark of Love
In last week's summary titled "Love and Hatred, Life and Death," we first realized an important revelation of Apostle John: To love one’s brethren is evidence of our sonship with God. Such a love effort doesn't come with a mere verbal affirmation or an oath of allegiance. To love someone requires an outright, truthful demonstration of one's interest and pleasure in a person or people. In John's epistle, the person to whom we demonstrate our sincere interest in is God. But after telling his church members that they "should love one another," John warns them not to be the hater that Cain was and not to adopt the distinctive feature of hatred that pervades the world. Living in hatred results in spiritual death; where there's no love of others, there's no life.
Today we'll see John directing our attention away from the "hatred" hallmark that the world dons to the "love" that clothes the church and its members. We'll discover at least four benefits of loving believers rightly: (1) setting our hearts at peace so we can be assured of the truth (v. 19); (2) being comforted when we realize that Father God knows us personally (v. 20); (3) having a bold confidence in all that a fellowship with God provides (v. 21); and (4) being guaranteed our receipt from him of his answered prayers (v. 22). Finally in vv. 23–24, John will sum up God's directives into one divine command: Believe in Christ, love one another, and remain in him just as he'll remain in you.
Refocusing from “Hatred” to “Love” (1 John 3:16–17)
Starting with v. 16, John draws a sharp contrast between the hatred that marks the world (highlighted in last week's summary) and the church's hallmark of love. He contrasts the hatred exhibited by the false-teaching opponents of his fellow house-church members (shown throughout chapters 1 through 3) and the hatred that Cain displayed for his brother, Abel (3:12–13) with the measure of love for fellow believers. Our first two verses highlight the essence of love and our obligation as Christians to love one another. The standard for our love is God’s love, having allowed Christ to die for us and pay our sin debt. A love that only observes and feels a person's hardship or need but does nothing to meet such need isn't love at all.
16This 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 and sisters. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (3:16–17)
If you want to know what God’s love is like, look at Jesus, the Righteous One, who willingly sacrificed himself on behalf of the ungodly. He manifested the fullest measure of love by laying down his life for us. His sacrifice for those of us who truly believe in him ought to, in turn, incentivize us to do similarly — to lay down our lives for fellow believers. When John says, "This is how we know what love is" (v. 16a), he's establishing the fact that Christ's act of self-sacrifice has become the guideline or yardstick by which we believers are to measure love. It's also the benchmark of love that's to be required of all believing Christians.
Within v. 16 we find the first of several statements in First John that clearly state, This is . . . what love is. It's Jesus' voluntary effort and never-ending drive to provide for and give to others that accounts for the essence of God's love (4:9–10). Not only do we see the fullness of God's love in Jesus' death, we see also the personification of love itself.
In his Notes on the Bible, American theologian Albert Barnes (1834) wrote this about v. 16's text: "Thus, the Saviour laid down his life for the good of mankind; thus the apostles exposed their lives to constant peril in extending the principles of religion; and thus the martyrs surrendered their lives in the cause of the church and of truth. In like manner, we ought to be ready to hazard our lives, and even to lay them down, if in that way we may promote the cause of truth and the salvation of sinners, or serve our Christian brethren."
John follows up v. 16 with an undeniable realization in the next verse about helping fellow believers in need. His “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” expression is unique to John in his gospel account (John 10–11, 15, 17, 18; 13:37–38; 15:13) and speaks of dispossessing oneself of something. Christian love is self-sacrificing and giving. Christ’s giving up his life for his believers epitomized the true nature of Christian love that's brought out in John 15:12–13; Philippians 2:5–8; 1 Peter 2:19–23. If we ought to be willing to lay down our lives for others, we ought to be even more willing to make comparatively smaller sacrifices for those believers in need, to alleviate their hardships. However, if we're not willing to provide our material possessions (at the least) to needy believers, we'll be unable to prove that God's love resides in us. Christians should exemplify the character of "unselfish love."
We should also see John putting into vv. 16–17 the third of three characteristics of Satan's children: They're marked by indifference to others' needs. We examined the first two love-free Satanic characteristics in last week's summary: being a child or follower of the devil (v. 12) and being filled with hatred for a relative or close friend (v. 15). It's the opposite for Christians. We should make our love to other believers obvious by being compassionate to those who have a need: See a great example of agape love in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Because we have God's love within us, we're obliged to share our possessions, time, and talents with brothers and sisters who are need. But where self-sacrificing love is lacking, God's love is likely also lacking (v. 17b). Are you unable to love a brother or sister? If so, spend time alone with God, talking with him and making sure that you're born again of him. Then, prayerfully ask him to help you with your self-sacrificing love effort.
In contrast with the fact that the world's hatred divides people and may result in murder (3:15), love unites people. It results in our laying down our lives for others (vv. 16–17). And, whereas hatred is motivated by personal sin, love is motivated by God's love that we receive in Christ (v. 16). If God’s love, as was shown on the cross, abides in your heart, it will flow through you to others.
Let Us Love with Actions and Truth (3:18–24)
While John tells us that Cain (3:12) “belonged to the evil one,” he says in v. 18 that believers are “in the truth." John might be saying that one's assurance of salvation is evidenced by how he or she actually cares for fellow believers.
18Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
19This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything (3:18–20).
Again displaying his pastoral intimacy to his readers, John addresses them as "Dear children," hoping to emphasize in his exhortation of them the importance of their demonstrating self-sacrificing love to fellow believers when needed. Just talking about offering help to someone won't provide them with needed help. In one way or another, we must make a concerted effort to help them if we can. We must act out our true belief that God is commanding us to help others.
James, in his "faith and deeds" passage (James 2:15–17), makes our demonstrating self-sacrificing love to fellow believers crystal clear when he says, "Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
In v. 19, John implies to promise that believers can surely know that they "belong to the truth," which John referenced in v. 18b to love "with actions and in truth." When we actually love another believer, we're assured that we belong to the truth when we see such love as being an undeniable demonstration of our knowing personally the God of truth and love (4:8, 16). We're then confidently able to comfortably set our hearts at rest in God's presence when we know that we're in and of his truth. We can naturally be confident before God through an intimate ongoing relationship with him. A lifestyle of active self-sacrificing love is the obvious proof of salvation (see v. 16).
How reassuring v. 20a is! "If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts." God knows those who are truly his (2 Timothy 2:19) and wants to assure his children of their salvation. Although Christians may have insecurities and doubts about their salvation, God doesn't condemn them (Romans 8:1). So, when we need help, we first have to admit that we're helpless on our own and shouldn't look inward for our problems' solutions. Since the Bible says "the heart is deceitful" (Jeremiah 17:9), in truth we're often the cause of our problems.
Thankfully, "God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." As a result, he knows exactly how to help us. Both a continuing, permanent, heart-level transformation and a genuine improvement in our problems are the result of having a personal connection with God. Trusting in him and his truth, while living to please him, enables us to prosper and be truly free.
Getting back to John's purpose in writing this epistle, do you see herein his concern for discouraged house-church members who faced the false-teaching secessionists who were challenging them? Although the secessionists claimed to belong to God's truth, John argues that when such claims are tested against the genuine love standard, they'll always fall short. The false teachers claimed to believe in Jesus but their claim was empty. Obviously they denied Christ by their deeds. So, throughout First John, the Elder gives these three test questions about authentic faith. Before we go to the next passage, see how well you'll answer them: (1) Do you obey God’s commandments? . . . (2) Do you actively love fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? . . . (3) Do you believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as well as believing in his sacrificial death for you? . . .
21Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him (3:21–22).
Those Christians in the Elder's house churches shouldn't have had to worry that their own claim to know God might have been unfounded. What they could rely on was knowing conclusively that they belonged to God's truth because they'd committed themselves to practicing self-sacrificing love to fellow children of God. Thay accomplished that by persistently living amid a loyal fellowship with one another and with God. John never expected that the hearts of his house-church members would condemn them. So he wrote confidently in vv. 21–22, not wanting Christians to dwell in a sphere of concern and hesitation but to assure them that their fellowship with God would ensure their confidence.
Do you see the prayer element in v. 22? We read that we receive what we ask for in prayer because we obey God's commands and do what pleases him. It's important to understand that God doesn't answer our prayers in our way or in our timing. He sometimes makes us wait on him for years; other times he answers by giving us what we need, which might not have been what we requested. Note also that the plural "commands" in v. 22b — "keep his commands" — becomes the singular "command" in v. 23a. That single command, in itself, has two critical segments: to believe in Jesus and to love one another.
23And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24The one who keeps God’s commands lives 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 (3:23–24).
These two closing verses repeat the three important features of this epistle: believing, loving, and obeying God. John's already set forth the importance for believers of living with a strong, unfailing faith in Christ and a true love for others. He combines both essential elements in v. 23. He's spoken extensively in chapter 2 about our abiding in Christ. Here in the closing verse, is the first time that he's mentioned God’s abiding in us. As we walk obediently with Lord Jesus, we enjoy close fellowship with him just as he enjoys being with us. To alleviate any doubt about being sure that Jesus lives in us and with us, John wraps up his third chapter by assuring us and every one of his readers that the way we know confidently that he abides and remains in us is “by the Spirit he gave us.” John's introduction to "the Spirit" is a natural segue into chapter 4, wherein he'll emphasize the importance of discerning God’s Spirit from evil spirits.
- Q. 1 What does it mean to you to love fellow believers "with actions and in truth" (v. 18)?
- Q. 2 How might your heart condemn you (v. 20)?
- Q. 3 As a Christian, can you be certain that you'll receive anything that you ask for in your prayers (v. 22)?
1 John 3:16–24
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 3 narrated by Max McLean.]