Loving One Another
1 John 3:11–24
In 1 John 3:10, the apostle John declared, “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother.” These strong words depict someone living in rebellion to God and His teachings, devoid of any evidence of inner righteousness. According to God’s inerrant Word, that person is a child of the Devil. Hard to believe, but true. This negative verse sets the stage for a positive message that John then delivered on love.
The Principle of Christian Love
“For this is the message that you [Christians] heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (v. 11). The word beginning refers to when Jesus told His disciples to love one another. John wrote often about God’s nature and His attribute of love (Jn. 3:16; 1 Jn. 4:7–8). In fact, this message was one of the first they received from Christ and one of the last messages He taught them before His departure (Jn. 13:34–35; 15:12, 17). The word love is in the present tense, meaning Christians should manifest love continually throughout their lives.
John used Scripture to illustrate what love is not. Love is “not as Cain who was of the wicked one [the Devil] and murdered [slaughtered] his brother” (1 Jn. 3:12). Here is the classic analogy of one who lacked brotherly love. Cain is referred to as being of “the wicked one,” a phrase John used earlier when speaking of the Devil (cf. 2:13).
Cain’s heart and character were filled with hatred against his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8), and he was motivated by the Devil to kill him. The Greek text uses the word slaughter, not murder, in reference to Cain’s cold-blooded violence (1 Jn. 3:12).
John then asked a rhetorical question: “And why did he murder him? Because his works were evil and his brother’s righteous” (v. 12). Cain’s sinful nature erupted with uncontrollable jealousy and hatred, provoked by the righteousness he saw in Abel. The same is true today, as sinful men hate the righteous and sometimes murder them.
The apostle said, “Do not marvel, my brethren, if the world hates you” (v. 13). Believers are commanded not to be surprised or amazed when they see unprovoked hatred toward Christians who live righteously (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). They should expect the ungodly to persecute them, as evidenced by Christian persecution throughout the world, even today.
A Christian’s true love for his or her brethren in Christ is one indication the individual possesses eternal life: “We know that we have passed from [the] death to [the] life, because we love the brethren” (1 Jn. 3: 14). The words have passed are perfect tense, meaning believers receive everlasting life the moment they receive Christ, and they possess that life through eternity. A Christian’s love for fellow born-again believers provides evidence (it is not the means) of salvation. Notice, Scripture does not say we love some of the brethren; we are to love all the brethren. Believers who are truly in fellowship with God will love all Christians.
Likewise, the opposite is true: “He who does not love his brother abides in death” (v. 14). The absence of such love reveals that someone professing to be a Christian is actually not born again: Thus he is separated from God and remains spiritually dead.
John concluded this section with a sweeping statement: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (v. 15). The diabolical nature of hatred is that it can ultimately cause the one who habitually harbors it to commit murder. Thankfully, such people usually do not do so because they fear judgment from the law. However, in God’s eyes, they are still guilty. Anyone who fixates on such hatred certainly does not possess God’s love or have eternal life.
The Practice of Christian Love
The supreme example of genuine love is Christ’s voluntary giving of His life: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us” (v. 16). Believers then as well as today understand Christ’s self-sacrifice and supernatural love for mankind (cf. Jn. 10:15–18). It was the greatest expression of true love the world has ever seen.
Each Christian has a biblical obligation to follow Christ’s example: “And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:16). This mindset was extremely needful in John’s day; but it remains important today, too, especially where Christians are under severe privation and persecution. Christians are to express true love to all people everywhere. However, the admonition in verse 16 applies only to those in the family of God.
Scripture here goes beyond the theoretical to illustrate how Christians are obligated to show love to brothers and sisters in need: “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (vv. 17–18).
There are no exceptions. Every believer is responsible to aid a Christian in need. Those who have “this world’s goods” should quickly show love by helping to relieve the suffering of other Christians. The word sees does not denote a casual glance but an ongoing observation of need. Seeing the need either prompts the able Christian to aid his brother out of love, or it “shuts up his heart from [helping] him.” The word shuts means to erect a deliberate barrier by closing the door to a brother’s need because of one’s own self-centered hardness of heart.
The love John wrote about requires the sacrifice of one’s self. Christians have a moral obligation and responsibility to sacrifice for their brethren (whom God loves) when they are in need.
If a Christian refuses to help a brother in need, John asked, “How does the love of God abide in him?” (v. 17). A person who professes to love God but refuses to help a needy brother when asked to do so is a hypocrite, and his verbal expression of his love must be questioned.
With a loving appeal as a spiritual father, the apostle exhorted his readers not to be hypocrites and to show other Christians love “in deed and in truth” (v. 18). Good deeds emanating from genuine love speak louder than words.
The Proof of Christian Love
Showing love to fellow Christians shows a believer is walking in truth: “And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him” (v. 19). Believers know they are of the truth because their thoughts and good deeds are grounded in divine truth (v. 18).
However, John anticipated one might feel condemned in his or her heart for not showing love to a brother: “For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (v. 20). He did not say what things might cause these feelings of condemnation. He knew that if a believer’s conscience is filled with doubt, guilt, and failure, his service for the Lord would be minimized. So John assured believers they may bring the issue to God in prayer, and the Lord will bring them peace.
God, being greater than our hearts and knowing all things, can give a praying believer a proper evaluation of his heart. In other words, an omniscient God is a better Judge than the human conscience. He alone knows a believer’s inner life and has perfect knowledge of someone’s motives, level of commitment, and desire to serve the Lord. Therefore, it is better for Christians to trust in God’s evaluation after spending time in prayer than it is to rely on a fallible conscience.
On the other hand, “If our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God” (v. 21). That is, if a believer has a good conscience (a heart that is right with God), he or she can approach God the Father in prayer with confidence (boldness and freedom of speech). When believers please God, then “whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (v. 22).
Jesus had told His disciples, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). This verse contains two stipulations for answered prayer: The Christian must (1) “keep His [God’s] commandments” (New Testament commandments, 1 Jn. 3:22) and (2) maintain a conduct that pleases God. When God answers prayer, it will be in keeping with His divine nature and attributes and His will for the petitioner.
God commands “that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” (v. 23). This commandment is twofold:
First, the word believe refers to a once-for-all action where an individual puts faith in the “name” of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as his Redeemer. This verse emphasizes the deity of Jesus Christ and the uniqueness of His Sonship within the Godhead, as unveiled to the world at Jesus’ incarnation.
Second, believers must manifest “love [to] one another” within the church. This love is to be ongoing, mutually expressed, and received by all Christians within the church. Love is the outworking of one’s faith and the test whether a person is a true Christian.
John concluded this section with a reminder: “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (v. 24).
Faithfully keeping God’s commandments gives true Christians inner assurance of their unity with God the Father through Jesus Christ. This unity is mutual: Believers not only abide in God, but God takes up residence in them—a major theme in John’s teaching (cf. Jn. 14:16–20; 15:5; 17:21–26). The assurance of mutual abiding comes through the indwelling power and ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers.
This relationship of love binds all believers together and is an ongoing witness to the world. Jesus said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35).