We are in the midst of John’s second rendition of the three tests of genuine, authentic Christian faith. How does anyone know whether he is a true believer in Jesus Christ and, therefore, is in possession of eternal life? How can I be sure that I am not like the false teachers who troubled these Christians to whom John was writing, thinking myself a Christian when in fact I am not? Anyone who reads 1 John finds those questions being answered again and again. John has considered for a second time the moral test of authentic Christian faith, viz. that those who have been born of God practice righteousness, they keep God’s commandments, they do not continue as sinners. Now he begins his second exposition of the social test, the test of love. Real Christians love one another.
- Remember throughout the letter John is also contrasting the new teaching that the false teachers had brought with the original apostolic gospel message that these Christians had been taught from the beginning. Typically, in what follows, as we saw last time in regard to the moral test, John paints in black and white, in strong and stark contrasts. There are no pastels in John’s description of the world and no shades of gray. As we said last week, this is typical of the Bible because it is always going down to the root of things where there is only the either/or, the good or the evil, the believer or the unbeliever.
John sees the Devil, Satan, lurking behind the sinful deeds of human beings. He had just made this point more generally in v. 8 of this third chapter. As with so much of reality according to Holy Scripture, there is more going on than meets the eye!
Cain, the first murderer is a prototype of the worldly man. He hated his brother because Abel’s deeds were righteous. Jealousy and an uneasy conscience lay behind his hatred of his brother. He had to demonize him in his heart and then kill him because Abel represented a permanent rebuke to Cain’s life, to what Cain was and how Cain lived. Well sinful man is like that still today.
- Worldly men and women being like Cain, don’t be surprised if they think about us Christians in the same way Cain thought about Abel.
Once again and as a number of times in 1 John, the logic of these tests of true faith or true Christian life is set before us. The love of the brothers is a reliable mark of authentic Christianity because there is but the single alternative. There are but two communities of people in the world and thus every one must belong to one or the other. One of those communities is the community of love and the other is the community of hate. So, if one can be seen to be a lover of the brethren, he or she must, by rigorous necessity, belong to the community of love and, therefore, be a Christian in truth. The life of love only comes from God.
That hatred and murder are sins of the same class is, as you know, what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not a stretch, as every thoughtful person knows, for those whom we hate we do wish away. The world would be a better place without them, so we think. Jesus didn’t mean and John didn’t either that you actually plot their murder; they meant only that your hateful and dismissive thoughts toward them are the mental equivalent of murder.
- If taking a person’s life is the truest expression of hate, then giving one’s life for the life of another is the truest expression of love. This is what Jesus did for us.
- And just as one can hate in many lesser ways than murder, one can love in many lesser ways than giving up one’s own life to save another.
- John was well aware of the great difference in human life between protestations of love and the actual practice of it.
- The family relationship is key to the thought. You are God’s child; you can count of your father’s love and acceptance.
Vv. 19-24 are perhaps the most difficult verses in the letter. They seem to form something of a digression, prompted by the last part of v. 18. The reference to truth prompts a thought: how do we know that we love in truth? In what follows there is something of a courtroom scene set up in the imagination: a scene with three participants. There is God himself, the judge, who knows all things; there is my own heart or conscience accusing me of failing the tests of life – “you say you are a Christian but you don’t keep God’s commandments and you don’t really love your brothers and sisters” –; and there is myself, the defendant.
John, dealing with the question of assurance of salvation as he is in this letter, realizes that often questions and doubts rise in the mind, in some minds more than in others. Accusations, some true and some false, come thick and fast first from our own conscience and then from the accuser of the brethren, Satan himself, and we are troubled and begin to doubt. Do we really keep God’s commandments? Do we really love the brethren? Do we really believe the gospel? We know our failures all too well. But God knows everything and his mercy is greater than our sin; that is what “God is greater than our hearts” seems to mean. Our hearts are condemning us but God is greater than our hearts. Remember, John began the letter speaking of God’s forgiveness and has just reminded us of Christ dying to save us. God knows the deepest commitments and aspirations of our hearts; he knows our lives and our behavior and he knows and loves his children. It is a liberating if surprising insight that, as John puts it here, God’s omniscience, his exact knowledge of our lives, inside and out, is a comfort, a relief, rather than a cause of concern or fear. God knows the true you and if you have a Christian life, no matter its imperfections, if it is your desire to love and obey for Jesus’ sake, then you can be certain that God knows that. You can be certain that he knows that and that his mercy is greater than your sin.
It is worth saying once more at this point that the now widespread criticism found even in our own circles of the notion of resting our assurance of salvation, even in part, on the fact that our behavior is decidedly Christian in character – that we obey God’s commandments, that we love our fellow Christians – I say, this criticism misses the mark. It is now commonly argued that teaching a Christian to look at his works or her behavior or conduct in any way is a mistake because it takes his or her concentration off the Lord Jesus Christ and puts it on himself or herself. The Christian is led in this way to start thinking about his own works instead of Christ’s work for him. He begins to navel gaze instead of keeping his mind set on Jesus. Our salvation comes from him not from ourselves, certainly not from our highly imperfect obedience to God’s commandments and our decidedly imperfect love for one another. Christians, therefore, should not be taught to look at themselves and their behavior but to Christ alone. Well, it is certainly possible for Christians to think too much of their own behavior and not enough of what Christ has done for them, but nothing could be clearer here than that John uses the moral and social tests as reliable means to demonstrate who are Christians in fact.
“Living in Christ is not a mystical experience which anyone may claim; its indispensible accompaniments are the confession of Jesus as the Son of God come in the flesh, and a consistent life of holiness and love.” [Stott, 152]
The last sentence of v. 24 introduces a new thought, one that serves as a segue to the next paragraph.
I read again the other night the account of Father Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who, early in the Second World War, was confined to Auschwitz for his outspoken condemnation of fascism in the newspaper he published. I read such accounts from time to time to remind myself who I am and what it means to be a Christian in this world and what my calling actually is as a follower of Jesus. Kolbe is remembered today primarily because at the end of July 1941 he asked to be allowed to die in the place of another inmate. A prisoner had escaped and, as was the practice of the camp guards, 10 prisoners were chosen at random to be sent to an underground cell to remain until they had starved to death. The excruciatingly painful death of starvation was thought to be the most effective deterrent to further attempts at escape. The ten unfortunate men were selected from the ranks one by one by the Gestapo commandant and were ordered to march to the bunker. One of them suddenly burst into tears, crying out that he would never see his wife or children again. It was at that point that Father Kolbe stepped from the ranks and asked if he could take the man’s place. He was permitted to do so and was sent with the others to the underground bunker. The cell housing the ten men had no window, no furniture, and a cement floor. There was a pail to serve as a toilet. The stench was overwhelming. We have the report of one of the camp guards. Through the next days Kolbe kept the spirits of the men alive. Under his guidance they began to pray not only for themselves but for their jailers. He urged them to believe in God and in Christ. In other death cells there was screaming and crying by night and day, but in Kolbe’s cell all was calm. By the third week only Kolbe and three others were still alive and they were then executed by injection. The man whose place Father Kolbe took survived the war.
No one can deny that that is love. That is love as everyone understands love to be. And every man or woman with Christian blood in his or her veins wants to love others like that! True enough, only rarely is a man or woman called actually to give up his or her life for another, but if the same spirit of love animates the heart, so much else can be done for others, so much else will be done for others. After all, as John is wise to remind us, smaller sacrifices are the work of true love as well: practical help, genuine caring, sympathy and thoughtfulness. And this, John says,is the truly, authentically Christian life.
Everyone talks of love, of course. Perhaps no word in our language is so overused and so abused. The word itself is one of the most elastic in human language. It is used in so many ways and of so many things, it is employed so loosely and indiscriminately that it is commonly in our usage employed to describe what anyone ought to realize is the exact opposite of love.
Take for example the story of Amnon and Tamar as we read it in 2 Samuel 13. The word ‘love,” in a powerful irony, is used there for something that was the furthest thing from love. Amnon, we read, loved Tamar. And in pursuit of that love he deceived her and then raped her and ruined her life. And when he was finished, the Scripture tells us, he hated her with an intense hatred; he hated her more than he had loved her. Well, if that is love, what pray tell is not? And as in ancient days, so today many use the word “love” as a synonym for desire, often very selfish desire. What Amnon thought was love was nothing of the kind! It was in fact hatred, pure and simple. Amnon loved himself and he wanted Tamar, he had no concern for her, for her reputation, her happiness, or her welfare. He indulged, as many do, the illusion that his own desires were love; it ennobles them somehow to call them love. Many teenagers make this very serious mistake, confusing “love” with their own desires and with the pleasure they receive from someone else’s company. Teenage boys who really loved the girls they date would keep their hands off them. That would be love: self-sacrifice to serve the welfare and happiness of another.
I remember years ago Elizabeth Taylor explaining her divorce from Richard Burton – I think it was her second divorce from Burton – by saying that they simply loved one another too much. She said that with a straight face and I’m sure there were those who heard her who thought her explanation profoundly touching. “Love” can mean lots of different things!
John is well aware of the elasticity of the term. He says in v. 18 that he is well aware that many claim to love who do not; many indulge the illusion that they are men and women of love who are nothing of the kind. Talk is cheap and in nothing so much as in love. So John leaves us in no doubt what he means by the term. He provides us with two illustrations of what he means by the term love, the love that is to characterize a true Christian life. First there is the example of Christ laying down his life for his enemies to save them from sin and death. The selflessness of it, the extremity of it, the intention to meet a real and pressing need: that is true love! Doing for others even at great cost to yourself: that is true love. Second there is the lesser example of meeting a person’s physical need for food, clothing, or shelter. But there too true love does not calculate a return; it is selfless, it is other-centered, and it is practical.
And everywhere we look in the Bible love is defined in the same way: as humble other-centeredness; a practical interest in another’s welfare, a regard for another’s life and happiness, and a commitment that remains unsatisfied without action.
To be sure there can be other elements of love. There are many different kinds of true love. Romantic love includes dimensions that the love John describes in vv. 16 and 17 does not. The love of family is not precisely the same kind of love as the love of close friendship or the love of country. The love of one’s neighbor is not in every way the same as the love of one’s Christian brother or sister. Love is multi-form not uniform. There is a specific kind of love for every relationship in human life. But true love, authentic love, genuine love always has this other-centeredness and this practical and sacrificial character that we see supremely in the love Jesus Christ has shown for us. And it is this principle that defines love in Holy Scripture: love is putting another first, caring for another without regard to one’s own convenience or comfort, acting on another’s behalf because such action is what the other needs and what will make them happy. Love as a desire is the desire to make someone else happy!
Love, John is saying, is giving ourselves to others, as Christ gave himself to us. Did you notice how John mixes in a very characteristically Biblical way the indicative and the imperative together throughout this passage? He says that genuine Christians do love one another in v. 14 – that is why such love can serve as a test of Christian faith – but he also says that we should love one another in vv. 11, 16, and 18. You may expect to find brotherly love in any genuine Christian’s life, but not to the degree that it should be found; it is there, but there should be more of it than there is and the true follower of Christ will want to love more and work to love more. It is, this brotherly love, at one and the same time, what we have and what we seek. Like so much else in the Christian life, holiness or godliness or goodness is a matter of possessing our possessions.
So, let us put John’s words, his social test, to use in our lives in coming days. Let us seek to possess more of this love that Christ has given us. The best way to grow in love as to grow in any grace and so in the assurance of our salvation is simply to practice that grace. Love grows with its exercise, whether the love we are speaking of is the love for God, or the love of a husband for his wife, or the love of parents for their children, or friends for their friends, or the love of Christians for their spiritual brothers and sisters. And John gives us two very simple instructions here, easy to follow, for the putting on of more love in our lives. They are the same two instructions that the Apostle Paul gives us for going on in our Christian lives: we must put off and we must put on, we must kill and we must make alive.
- The first instruction then is to stop hating people.
Are you put off by that? Does it offend you that I should suggest that you have a problem with hate? It shouldn’t. Christians ought to be the most honest people when it comes to facing the unpleasant facts about themselves because Christ has given them the freedom to be honest. Others must hide the truth about themselves from themselves because they have no escape from that truth. But we do. God has forgiven us and will forgive us. Christ has taken our sins away. We honor him by admitting our sinfulness that took him to the cross and we find it lifted off our consciences when we do. It is far easier to admit to our hatred when we know God stands ready to forgive it than it is to admit to hatred that we have no answer for and when we must live with the guilt of it.
And, of course, hate is a problem for every human being. Even insightful unbelievers admit this. That is why John makes a point of saying that we should not hate as Cain did. We find it easy to despise people – everybody does – people we don’t even know. We hate them because they have different politics or different religious opinions. The American political, social, and religious landscape is bathed in hatred. We dismiss people who disagree with us, at least in our hearts, as nothing, as unworthy of us, which Jesus said, is the spiritual equivalent to murder. We hate people because they have what we wish we had, because we are jealous of them, or because we imagine that they have done us some injury. Perhaps they actually have. The Bible is always painfully realistic; it speaks to what is true, like it or not. If it commands us not to hate, it is because we will and we do. Answer before the Lord who sees into your heart: is there not hatred there, hatred which darts out of our viperous hearts even sometimes to settle a thousand miles away on persons who don’t even know we exist?
Would that it were only for such, however. Still worse, we must admit that John is speaking the truth about us when he tells us not to hate one another. For we do; far more than any of us wishes to admit we hate one another. It can be enough for our ill-will that another person is praised in a way I wanted to be praised; that another is well-paid, or prosperous, or talented, or successful, or admired; even, so utterly shameful to admit, that another is holy and does holy things. Yes, we can even hate the grace of God in another man or woman, when that grace, in our small and selfish view of things, raises the other at our expense, or, more honestly, lowers us in comparison. I know Christian ministers – who of all Christians who ought to know better – who harbor deep animosity toward other Christian ministers out of jealousy and envy and, unless they come to their senses, that animosity will accompany them into the casket and down into the grave and up to the judgment seat of Christ.
And, from time to time, you suddenly run across a brother or a sister, here in the church or on the street or at work and in a moment you discover that the same devil lives in them that lives in you. There will be light in his eyes or hers and a carefree spirit until he or she catches sight of you. And suddenly the light dies on her face and darkness comes up out of her heart all from one glimpse of you. What is the matter? What have you done, you ask yourself, that anyone’s heart should be so dark toward you? And as you walk past through the oppressive cloud she has left behind her you recollect that once you disagreed with her, or once you were given a place she wanted for herself, or folks who used to spend time with her, now spend it with you, or some such thing. And, unless you ward off the growing resentment with an arrow-prayer to God for a loving heart and for the forgiveness of her sins and your own, you will not have walked twenty steps before you own heart is as black with hatred as hers was made at the sight of you.
Oh no! Whatever else John may be doing, he is not exaggerating. He knows very well that he must tell us straight out that love requires that we banish from our hearts the hatred we so often entertain toward one another; and that we must put on – in obedience to Christ and in recognition of his great love for us when we were still his enemies – a spirit of good will, interest, sympathy, kindness, and benevolence toward others.
What John insists upon here is a hatred of hatred on our part. We are not going to be haters! I often read in biographies of great men it said that this man or that was a great hater, he could keep a grudge, nurse it, serve it. Not for us, brothers and sisters. We are going to put hatred to death in our hearts because it is the betrayal of Christ’s love for us when we were so utterly unworthy of his love and so deserving of his hate. When we feel hate rising in our hearts toward another person we are going to banish that feeling as every Christian can who remembers the great love with which we have been loved. Be mindful of your tendency to hate and recognize it for what it is; refuse to soft pedal the issue in your mind, be looking for the signs of hatred’s appearance in your soul, and then when you find it, kill it. That is the first thing.
- The second is to practice love.
John’s helpful realism defines love as action. We tend far too much of the time to find it in emotion, in feelings. And it is wonderful to have our feelings dominated by love. But in the Bible love is first and foremost action. The Bible says comparatively little about Christ’s feelings for his people, but it says a very great deal about his sacrifice for them. And so for us. Love is doing things for people, helping them, caring for them, lifting them up, considering them important and acting accordingly. This is said to have been the genius of Francis of Assisi’s Christian life. As G.K. Chesterton beautifully put it in his great book on Francis:
“We may say if we like that St. Francis, in the bare and barren simplicity of his life, had clung to one rag of luxury; the manners of the court. But whereas in a court there is one king and a hundred courtiers, in this story there was one courtier, moving among a hundred kings.” 
Think of your life that way: yourself a courtier, a servant moving among hundreds of kings; everyone else a king! Francis’ life was a great adventure, full of excitement and drama. And yours can be too! You young people, here is a life for you, a grand, noble, daring, even dangerous life – as Father Kolbe discovered – this life of Christian love. This searching out of people to be kind to them, to do them good in Jesus’ name. Day after day it is as simple as that: to be kind, to be generous, to be sympathetic and thoughtful toward those the Lord brings into your way and to do that because you are a follower of Jesus Christ, the prince of love. There is heroism in such a life, to be sure. Work to put more of Christ’s kind of love into practice toward others and you will find the heroism in it; it demands sacrifice and nobility of spirit. But then Christ himself was the perfect hero and those who seek to imitate him and to serve him should expect to live heroic lives themselves. But there is more than heroism. There is a wonderful assurance in it. Those who love in Jesus name will find, as multitudes have found before them, that the Father and the Son and the Spirit together will be with them, to encourage and help them. Is this not what John said?
“…this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he commanded us. Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God and God in him.”
Surely we can’t hear that and not think that we should love others and especially other Christians more than we do; that we should eagerly search out every opportunity to make others happy; to make it our plan every day to love someone in Jesus’ name. There are as many ways to love one another as there are needs in human life. Don’t misunderstand v. 18. Words are often our most important works of love, our most valuable gifts to others. One can lay down one’s life for another by taking care to speak the words he or she needs to hear. But at other times a person needs more than words. He or she needs time or money or practical help in some other form. Whatever would benefit our brother or sister, whatever would make him or her happy is what love craves to give. Love always chooses its works not from its own interests, but always and only from the interests and the needs of others.
It is our glory as Christians in this sin-sick world that every one of us every day, every week is called and enabled to practice Christ-like, self-denying, cheek-turning, coat-giving, extra-mile-walking love. And it is our Father’s great promise that as we do that he will abide with us and will leave us in no doubt that he is our Father and we are his children!
Jesus Christ was and is the man for others and those who follow him, his people, as you and I are, must be obviously and evidently and cheerfully and enthusiastically for others as he was. And being for others is love!