1 John 3:11-24

Jimmy Jo1 JohnLeave a Comment

So we continue in our study of 1 John.  It’s a pretty short letter, but we want to take our time working through it .  Even though, as we’ve mentioned, John seems to repeat the same themes, this doesn’t diminish its significance.  Indeed, I would argue that the repetition (among other things) points to how seriously we need to take the issues that John raises.  So, to our passage today: 

11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 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. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

16 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 and sisters. 17 If 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? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The 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.

1 John 3:11-24

Now before we get to our verses today, it’s worth noting that the immediately preceding verse (v. 10) reads: 

10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

1 John 3:10

This is part of the passage we looked at last week, though we didn’t dig into it specifically.  But it’s worth noting that verse 10 indicates a pretty obvious connection between what we looked at last week and our verses today.  By way of very brief review, last week’s verses made a sharp distinction (by way of John’s usual dualism) between those who know God (the children of God) and those who do NOT know God (the children of the devil).  John clarifies that dualism (he gives concrete substance to it) by distinguishing between those who do not keep on sinning and those who do keep on sinning (those who keep on sinning, remember, likely points to John’s opponents, the false teachers, who argue that sin doesn’t really matter).  It’s at this point we get verse 10 – which again reads:  10 This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.  And it’s at this point that we get our verses today. 

So it’s worthwhile to notice that our verses today (recognizing verse 10 as essentially a transitional statement) continue the categories that John began in last week’s passage – that is the children of God and the children of the devil.  And along with the distinction between those who take sin seriously and those who don’t, John places the criteria of loving brothers and sisters.  That is, those who do not love one another fall under the category of “children of the devil.” 

That alone should make us take today’s verses extremely seriously.  We are readily able (sometimes even eager, depending on how judgemental we are) to recognize that people who sin, people who don’t meet our standards, can be called “children of the devil.”  But to put people who don’t love brother or sister in the same category?  We might balk at that.  Because loving one another can be extremely difficult to do – even more so than avoiding particular sins. 

So with that said, let’s take a look at our verses today.  Beginning at verse 11, we read: 

11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 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. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

1 John 3:11-15

So firstly, we note that John equates those who do not love brother and sister – those Christians who do not love one another – as akin to Cain.  We know Cain from the story of Cain and Abel, of course.  Both Cain and Abel presented offerings to God, Cain from his crops, and Abel from his flocks.  But only Abel’s offering was accepted.  We won’t get into the story or the rationale behind Abel’s acceptable and Cain’s unacceptable offerings (but my inclination is to believe that Cain’s offering was unacceptable because Cain was unacceptable – God says to Cain, in Genesis 4 – Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Regardless, John likens Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the Christian who does not love their brother and sister (which, again, should set off massive alarm bells within us – this is serious business).  And then John says Cain murdered Abel because “his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.”  This might suggest to us possibly an element of envy (“why was Cain accepted by God and I wasn’t?”) or it might suggest something of judgement (i.e. Cain’s sinfulness is set in contrast to and highlighted by Abel’s righteousness). 

This, says John, is akin to the Church’s (or the Christian’s) relationship to the world, inasmuch as the Church is redeemed and forgiven and the world is not.  And this brings us back to John’s dualism – between those who are part of God’s kingdom, those who have embraced the forgiveness of Christ, those who have taken hold of eternal life, and those who have not.  And what is the evidence of, or perhaps what is the outcome of, those who have “passed from death to life” (again, note the seriousness of the distinction that John makes)?  We love one another.  Anyone who does not love one another remains in death.  This (absolutely crucial element) is punctuated again with the image of Cain and Abel when John says, “15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”  John is not messing around. 

Continuing on with the passage, we read: 

16 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 and sisters. 17 If 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? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:16-18

Now this is a passage that, I would hope, does not need a whole lot of interpretation.  “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 and sisters…”  I have many thoughts about this, especially in our current cultural context.  I’ll come back to those thoughts, but for now, I want to point out how often this theme recurs throughout scripture.  From John’s corpus, we read:

  • John 3:16 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • John 13:12-14  12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
  • John 13:34-35 34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
  • John 15:12-13  12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

From Paul’s writings, we read:

  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-3  If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
  • Colossians 3:12-14  12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
  • Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Repeatedly throughout scripture, and especially in the person and ministry of Jesus, love is identified as the key Christian characteristic.  And repeatedly throughout scripture, love is equated with (or at least consists largely of) self-sacrifice.  So when John says, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth,” he’s saying something particularly poignant.  Loving one another is much more, much deeper, than merely being nice to one another.  Loving one another – laying down our lives for one another – is much more than merely a pleasant disposition. 

Moving on, the last part of our passage today reads: 

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 24 The 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.

1 John 3:19-24

This is one of those passages, like several in 1 John, that seems to both conclude what has just come before, and introduce what is immediately to follow.  As well, this is one of those passages that deserves a lot more attention than I am going to give to it. 

Additionally, this is one of those passages that produce a lot of debate about what exactly is going on.  And suffice it to say, I’m not going to do justice to those discussions. 

Now having said all of that, very simply this passage seems to say that we can have confidence in our relationship with God because either we follow the commandments of God (to love one another, for example), or we rest in the grace of God despite our shortcomings.  Now if we turn our attention back to 2:28, we read:  28 And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.  This leads me to believe that these verses wrap up the entire section:  2:28 – 3:24.  That is, John both begins and ends this section by speaking of confidence.

If we turn our attention to verse 3:23, we notice that John says that we can have confidence if we keep God’s commands.  And what are God’s commands?  They are two-fold: “23 And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”

So again, I think this discussion in verse 19-22 wraps up John’s conversation in this entire section:  2:28 – 3:24.  And this conversation about confidence leads me to believe that something in the congregation or community to whom John is speaking has stripped them (or threatens to strip them) of their confidence – that is, their confidence of belonging to God; walking in the light.  And I think that this is the opponents, the false teachers, that John is speaking against.  These false teachers are suggesting that something else is needed to ensure their salvation.  If we assume that these false teachers are proto-Gnostics/Docetists, we can likewise assume that what they are claiming is needed is a greater teaching, a greater understanding, a greater enlightenment.  But what John is saying is that the only thing needed is faith in Jesus Christ (which is bounded by correct, apostolic teaching) and loving one another. 

Now I have a whole lot of thoughts about that – especially as our current culture tends towards a related but distinct set of “other things that are needed.”  But at this point, I want to return to the conversation about love.  John says, “11 For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 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. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

Again, as Christians, we are well-known for frequently talking about (and hopefully practicing) the importance of avoiding sin – the importance of holiness.  Indeed, this is why many non-Christians avoid us.  But what we see in these verses is that equally important is the command to love one another.  Both holiness and love are commanded. The one is not separated from the other. And once again, I want to pose the question, “Do we take the command to love one another seriously?”  Do we take it as seriously as John calls us to?  Do we practice love as seriously as we demand holiness? And do we really understand what it means that this is the mark of a kingdom people?

 John says, “16 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 and sisters.”  Do we really understand what it means to put others before ourselves?  It seems to me that the society we live in, through a variety of means, tells us precisely the opposite.  I’m not now going to explore that thought further, but it seems to me that this is desperately needed.  The world desperately needs to see what the love of God looks like.  Our neighbours desperately need to see what the work of the Holy Spirit in a community of God’s faithful people can do.  Because we, as a community of the kingdom, can point to the work and reconciliation of God in this world.  We can, through the work of the Holy Spirit, show the world what God is doing.  But we need to take seriously this command.  The church needs to discover what it means to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste – by (among other things) loving one another with the kind of love with which Christ loves us.  Beloved, let us love one another, so that the truth of God can be made manifest in this world.

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