“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love each other. Whoever does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14).
No shades of grey
John has no shades of grey when he describes true disciples of Jesus:
We are dead to sin and alive to Christ.
Love cannot save us, but love demonstrates that we are born again. It is visible proof that God’s invisible Spirit is changing us day by day. It is the practical expression of living in submission to Christ, our ‘Bridegroom’ and the ‘Vine’ that produces good fruit in us moment by moment. The more we love God, the more we will love the people He has made in his own image.
For me, love does not come easily or naturally. It is sometimes hard for me to know what love requires in each relationship and situation. I am naturally self-centred, task driven and prefer to be alone than in community. I thank Jesus that He is not just my example but my sin-bearer! And I thank my home groups for teaching me the joy of living and loving in community. But we live in a world that has distorted the idea of love, turning it into a flexible, sentimental thing that can be moulded by our own desires and imaginations. ‘Love’ is something that is tossed aside when something better comes along. ‘Love’ is trumped by our dreams and goals. We have truly made love in our own image. Today John challenges us with God’s unchanging truth of what love is:
Love is… self sacrifice.
Love is… action not words.
Love is… laying down our lives for others.
Let us pray that God’s Spirit would change us profoundly, moment by moment, to enable us to practically love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
1 John 3:11-23; 4:20-21
11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
The message you have heard from the beginning.
We live at a time when people disdain the old and uncritically fawn over the new. John is speaking to Christians living in an age of Gnosticism similar to today’s ideologies. False teachers were offering a mystical door to salvation. The Athenian mindset of John’s day was obsessed by new ideas (Acts 17:21), spiritual experiences and special knowledge and revelation. But John reminds them that Jesus is the God-man who came to earth in real space and time. His physical body died and came back to life. Jesus is now with his followers by his Spirit. The message of Jesus and the apostles is down-to-earth. It has no shades of grey or mirky shadows. It is the truth that ‘was from the beginning’– not hearsay but first hand knowledge (1 John 1:1; 2; 3). Faith in this Jesus, whose narrative is told in the eye witness accounts of the New Testament, is the only basis for fellowship with God the Father. Like the true Jesus, true love has no shades of grey.
The spirit of Cain.
To show us what love is, (and is not), John reaches back to the book of Genesis for a man in the second generation of humankind—Cain. Cain is contrasted with Jesus (1 John 3:12; 16) and John challenges us to ask ourselves who we are emulating. Are we allowing rebellion against God and jealousy to take root in our hearts, bearing the thorns of hate and murder, like Cain? Or are we living in full submission to God, giving our lives away out of love for each other, like Jesus? We may be shocked at the idea that we can be like Cain who murdered his brother, but remember Jesus’s words that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer in his heart (Matt 5:21-22). It is useful to re-read how Cain came to murder Abel in Genesis 4:1-16, and the warning God gave him before killing his brother,
“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” (Gen 4:7).
God, who knows Cain’s heart, warns him to guard it. But Cain does not master his desires. He shows a settled refusal to soften his hard heart. His envy of his brother gives rise to hatred, and hatred manifests in murder. The Bible talks of envy as coveting. In Cain’s case, breaking the 10th commandment, “Do not covet” leads him to murder his own flesh and blood. Joseph’s brothers show the same progression from envy, to hatred, to selling Joseph as a slave. Humanity in 2019 is no different from our ancestors in Genesis. The heart is the wellspring of life and all our outward actions flow from it (Prov 4:23; Matt 15:18).
In his classic True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer makes the point that all sin originates in the 10th commandment, “Do not covet.” Exodus 20:17is the heart condition which leads us to break the other 9 commandments. Schaeffer shows how our proper human desires easily turn into coveting (P205):
“Desire becomes sin when it fails to include love of God or men… there are two practical tests as to when we are coveting against God or men; first, I am to love God enough to be contented; second, I am to love men enough not to envy… and this is not only envy for money, it is for everything….Natural desires have become coveting against a fellow creature, one of our kind, when we have a mentality that would give us secret satisfaction at his misfortune.”
We must search our hearts often with these two tests: Contentment and Envy. Coveting is inward rot that spills its poison into our outward actions and words, as it did in Cain’s life. I know in my own life that coveting leads to ingratitude, anger and many other sins in my own life. Love and coveting cannot co-exist. We are either led by the spirit of Cain or the Spirit of Christ.
The Spirit of Christ
Christ’s love always travels from the heart to the hands and feet of those ruled by His Spirit. Like the good Samaritan, a Christian who is Spirit-led cannot look away when someone is in need or distress (1 John 3:17; Luke 10:25-37). It is easy to love ‘everyone’ in a vague, generic kind of way, but much harder to love someone in particular. It is easy to avoid someone in need than to get up close and personal, to see and hear them, to share their suffering (Luke 10:33). It is easy to be moved and to feel pity, but it is another thing to give up our time; to bandage up someone’s ‘wounds’; to use our car, our home and give up our money (Luke 10:34-35). Most of us will not die martyrs as Jesus did, but we are still called to lay down our lives for each other, especially for believers (1 John 3:16; John 15:12-13).
Of course we cannot meet every need or save the world. Jesus himself did not heal everyone. But love comes from the conviction that every life matters to God. Love starts with small things. That may mean laying down just a part of my time and energy to connect with a brother or sister in need. Love is holding loosely to our comforts, our schedule, our dreams, our money and our desires so that we can care for people (1 John 3:17-18). Love may mean giving away a whole chunk of our lives as we look after an elderly parent or sick friend, or raise an adopted child. Love means never standing in the way of another’s holiness, nor taking what does not belong to me sexually from another person. Love treats every person with dignity, while racism embodies the spirit of Cain. Love is being thoughtful and not irritable or resentful. Love does not want what someone else has (1 Cor 13:4). Love does not have a need for special attention or recognition (1 Cor 13:4-5). Love patiently bears with people rather than quarrelling and gossiping ( Cor 13:7). Love makes peace and is not rude (1 Cor 13:5). Love does not sow division, pick fights or take revenge (1 Peter 3:9; Rom 12:17). Love believes the best even when people disappoint us. Love is not a matter of word and talk, but of action and truth (1 John 3:18).
The Biblical definition of love is down to earth: We cannot claim to love an invisible God if we do not love the real flesh and blood people around us. We demonstrate our love for God by practically and sacrificially loving each other. This is not a new message on love. Love fulfills the Old Testament Law and prophets (Rom 13:8;9;10) and has always been God’s greatest commandment (Matt 22:40). It is not only good doctrine and faithful preaching of the word that draws people to Jesus. It is also the sweet witness of love in our church community that convinces people that the gospel is true.
Love is not self determinism. Love is self sacrifice.
The world at war.
John says we should not be surprised when the world hates us (1 John 3:13). If Cain represents the world and Abel symbolizes faithful believers, the way of the world is to covet and drag others down in order to pull oneself up. Just as Cain hated Abel for his righteousness, many people feel threatened by Christians who don’t strive and jostle for position. Light exposes darkness. The world hated God’s prophets, Jesus, the apostles and faithful Christians throughout history.
Love, light and life will always be at war with hatred, darkness and death.
Rather, we should be surprised if we always have the world’s approval and acceptance. The world’s love is not something to be envied. The question John asks us throughout his letter is this: Which side are you living for?
Live it out!
CS Lewis and John Stott give some no-nonsense, practical advice about loving each other. Let’s put these principles into action:
- “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” C.S Lewis. Mere Christianity.
- “It is impossible to pray for someone without loving him, and impossible to go on praying for him without discovering that our love for him grows and matures.” John Stott
- “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS. Lewis, The Four Loves