This Is How We Know What Love Is
1 John 3:11-18
Key Verse 3:16
“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.”
There’s a clear theme flowing throughout this letter of John. We can see it in many places and in many ways, as John has a way of saying something and them repeating it from another angel. But he wants the children of God to know that, just as there are children of God in this world, there are also children of the devil. How do we know them apart? John says: “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 a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.” (10) He’s been talking about this since the start of his letter. But here it becomes clear that the children of the devil are incapable of doing what is righteous nor are they capable of loving their brothers. And that’s because the natural person has a corrupt nature which is sinful and subject to the laws of sin and death. In other words, the natural man cannot help but naturally obey his sinful nature. John tells us that he still belongs to the devil. But God provided a way for us to be delivered from the sinful nature. Christ came to “take away our sins”. (5) He also came to “destroy the devil’s work”. (8) How great that is! Christ, through his death and resurrection, has guaranteed a new nature for everyone who believes in him. A complete deliverance from the natural sinful nature! And is given a total new nature that is from God, a godly nature. This nature is able to do what is righteous and is also able to love as God loves. Those who have put their trust in Christ Jesus know this truth only too well. They know they are the children of God because, in spite of many shortcomings and weaknesses, they are determined to do what is righteous and to grow in their love for God and for one another. That’s how we know who the children of God are from those who are not. You can tell them apart by their fruit. (Matthew 7:20)
Now John focuses on the theme of love. Loving one’s brothers and sisters. This seems to be a clear mark of a Christian. Read verse 11. “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” The beginning he keeps on talking about here in his letter is the incarnation of Christ, the time Christ Jesus came in the flesh and became one of us. It was the beginning of a new dispensation, a new era so to say, the time or age of grace. Before Christ came, the dispensation was that of law. People lived under the law and were judged by the law. But God promised that he will make a new covenant with us, and it would be a covenant of grace. So he sent his Son to launch the age of grace upon all mankind. That is to say that when Christ came, the age of Law was put aside and a new age began, the age of grace, whereby Christ would sacrifice himself for our sins, and we would no longer live by the law nor be judged by our fulfillment of the law but that we would live under grace and be judged based on our faith in him and what he has done for us. That’s the beginning John is talking about. It may also be considered the beginning point where you and I began to believe in Christ and put our trust in him. It is the beginning of our new relationship with Christ based on his grace in our lives. If you have not had such a beginning yet, then believe in him and receive him as your Lord and Savior, and this day will be the beginning of your salvation from sin and condemnation.
“This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” the message of the gospel is very clear. Christ died to take away our sins. Repent and believe in him and you will be delivered from sin and death and will inherit eternal life. We can repeat the message of the gospel in many other ways as well. Jesus himself preached the gospel in more ways than we can recount. But it is the message we heard from the beginning since Christ set foot on this earth and began to tell us about our spiritual condition, our hopelessness in this world, our impending judgment and eternal condemnation; about God’s mercy to lost and hopeless sinners, his plan of salvation, his grace to redeem every one who dares to trust him. But whatever the gospel message that was preached ever since Christ walked this earth, the heart of the message had always been the same. Love! The is the message of the Christian faith from beginning to end, that we should very personally accept the love of God shows us and that we should love God back. The message however, does not end there. The message of love has the shape of the cross. The cross has a beam going up and down from the earth to the heavens. That symbolizes the love we on earth share with our heavenly Father. But the cross also has another beam going sideways, symbolizing the love we should share with one another. Thus, from the beginning the message these Christians (including us) have heard without fail is that “We should love one another”. Although John is strictly talking about loving our fellow Christian brothers and sisters— because the heretics who were distorting the gospel clearly did not— John is surely also talking about loving our neighbor as the gospels command us to do. Surely our love must also extend to our very enemies as the gospels also command us to do. That’s the message they and we have heard and will keep on hearing from the beginning to the end as we learn to walk in the truth of God’s word and do what is good and righteous before his eyes. The message has not changed. It will not change. It is the mark by which you can identify a child of God. There are no in-betweens between love and hate. You cannot be passive about it. If you are not loving, you are hating. It is something we should take seriously because we are identified as his children through love.
John goes on to talk about someone in the Bible who embodied hate. He reminds us of Cain. Read verse 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.” Who was Cain? Outwardly, Cain was a worshipper of God who even presented sacrifices to God. We can say that he could pass for a child of God, because he worshipped God and offered God sacrifices. But inwardly he was nothing of the sort! John tells us that inwardly, Cain belonged to the devil, and he tells us why. He entertained and finally developed murderous thoughts. He hated his brother. He was jealous of his brother Abel. Why? Because his brother was a good and righteous man doing what is right in the sight of God. He lived in the fear of God and he expressed his love for God through his daily life. So rather than loving his brother and protecting him as he should, he hated him. And his hatred of his brother turned into murder. We can see this also in the life of Jesus. Jesus lived for God and his love for God was expressed in his daily righteous living. Yet the Jews hated Jesus and plotted to kill him. Why? Because they were of the devil whom the Bible says was a murderer from the beginning. Cain worshipped God and offered sacrifices to him, but God didn’t accept his worship nor his sacrifices because his heart was not right. It was sinful. His heart was corrupt and needed fixing. We know that God tried to help Cain fix his heart. He even showed him how. But when hatred isn’t dealt with through repentance and trust in God, hatred grows and festers and turns to murder. Cain refused to listen to God’s counsel. Like many people he kept listening to the other voice inside of him which said things like: “God’s not fair, he favors your brother Abel, I hate them both. I don’t care what happens, I’m getting even. I wish he were dead.”
Read verse 13. “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.” Cain hated his brother because his brother’s actions were righteous and Cain’s were evil. This is very clear. He did not hate him because Abel did something to hurt Cain. He hated him because Cain was a bad man doing bad things, and Abel was a good man going good things. Now John tells the Christians something which Jesus had already taught us. “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you.” What John is saying is: “Don’t act as if something strange or weird is happening to you if the world does not accept you, because the world is never going to accept you.” Of course, John says it in a lot stronger words. He uses “hate”, because anything that is not genuine love is considered hate, even if it has the appearance of love and acceptance.
John tells them and us: “Don’t expect the world to love you.” In fact expect the world to hate you. Expect it to reject you. Expect it to cast you out of its circles of friendships and close knit relations. Why? Again because we have a good example in Cain and Abel. Abel was righteous. His actions were righteous. What he did for God and for others were motivated out of love. He loved God. He sacrificed for God. He wanted to please God. He lived a life that is in close relationship with God. And Cain hated him for that. Cain should love Abel. But sin in him caused him to hate his brother instead. Why? Because those who are still in the world, belong to the world and are under the influence of the world. A Christian may do something good for a good cause and it won’t necessarily set the world against you. Rather a lot of good deeds are welcomed by the world— Feeding the hungry— going abroad to help orphaned children— saving an endangered species— are all things that the world admires. But love God and live your life for God and exercise righteous behavior— such as turning the other cheek, forgiveness, preaching truth, offering your money to gospel work, refusing to engage in sinful actions that the world thinks is nothing more than harmless fun but which the bible clearly defines as sin— then watch the world hate you and reject you. The world will hate you if you love God and live your life for God.
There is no such thing as living a life that is acceptable by both those who are sinful and those who are righteous. These days there are many cool Christians who in the name of freedom do things that are clearly uncomfortable, even sinful, to the eyes of a child of God. When the child of God refrains from doing them, he is either criticized or made to feel out of place or legalistic. If you’re in that kind of cool Christian company of those who abuse freedom in the name of Christ and you enjoy their company, there may be something terribly wrong with your faith and especially with your walk with Christ and your relationship with him. Get out of that company. Run for your life. There is no such tings as a life that is both acceptable to the world and to God’s kingdom. We all want to be loved and accepted. But the Bible tells us that if you are a real child of God, you will not be accepted; rather you will be hated if you live a righteous life. Your life and the company you keep tells a lot about you. If the world shuns you, you are living a righteous life. If the world thinks you are a cool Christian, and accepts you, your faith is faulty and needs serious adjustments or a complete re-haul.
There is no hate greater than the hate of a bad man for a good man, or an evil man for a righteous man. Or a worldly man for a Christian. Or especially a worldly Christian for a righteous Christian. This is no mystery. We see this happening the world over all the time. Especially it is manifest greatly of an ungodly man for the godly man. Hate is a powerful thing. It cannot be contained. It must manifest itself somehow. People who love sin cannot endure the sight of genuine Christian righteous acts or of genuine love. If they cannot kill the Christian who possesses them, they will try to kill his reputation. So when you see a person full of hatred it is because his own life is full of all the things that are ungodly and unrighteous. John tells us “Don’t be surprised!” He also tells us “Don’t be like Cain”, meaning that is possible for us in our sinful nature to be like Cain. We see that clearly how jealousy and envy and hate can so easily invade our hearts when things don’t go our way— or when we feel cheated of something we think we should have— or if we are treated unfairly. Life is never fair. Jesus’ death wasn’t fair. It was righteous. It was loving. It lacked any kind of hate. But we must always remember that God is sovereign. In his sovereignty, he knows us well, and deals with us according to his wisdom. We are not to hate, we are not to question God. We shouldn’t give the devil a chance to turn love into hate in our hearts. We are rather to love and only to grow in love.
Read verse 14. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” John again encourages God’s children that love is the distinguishing mark of his children. Love becomes the distinguishing mark of the new life that God has given us in every way. There is nothing that says this person is born of God and belongs to God as love does. John says that those who love belong to God and have crossed over from spiritual death to spiritual life. They have God’s life in them. They love. They love because God is their father whose love compels them to love. They love because they are no longer subject to this world nor are they under the power of death which compels men to be and to act as the devil is and does. You see, the devil cannot love and he passes that to all people. His nature cannot love. He can only hate. We see some natural love in the world because God has put it in our hearts to love our children and parents, and those who love us. But even that is fickle and is easily corrupted when the devil plants doubts and fears in people’s hearts. When a husband who loves his wife doubts her, his heart turns cold towards her. When a wife who loves her husband is oppressed by him her love turns to hate and she can’t see what she loved in him in the first place. All that comes from the devil and not from God. But when a person has God’s nature, John says he passes to life. He no longer is subject to the influence of this world. God’s love flows in him. He can forgive. He can endure. He can love. No one can fake love. A man may go to church and act all good and holy, say the right things, feed the poor— but if he is not loving God and living for God but for himself, he is neither part of God’s life nor can he love. That man or woman can only love themselves and live for themselves.
Read verse 15. “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.” There is a spirit of hate in this world that is powerful and has possessed and used many people throughout the ages. People think they are not influenced by anything but their own thoughts and feelings. But the truth is that the spirit of hate is everywhere and cannot be defeated except by the spirit of love. Where hate or vengeance live, cannot welcome the Spirit of God nor have the spirit of God live there. We have to be careful not to fall prey to the spirit of hatred because it is not of God. Even the slightest criticism or the lightest rebuke or the simplest admonition can arouse the spirit of hate in our hearts. That’s why the psalmist said: “Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it. Yet my prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers.” (Psalms 141:5)
Read verse 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.” We hear so much about love in the Bible. John especially does. He literally tells us that unless you are genuinely loving, you cannot possibly be born of God. Even the heretics of the day talked about love in a way that confused the Christians. They were defining love in such ways that almost made sense to those who were born of God but not deeply rooted in the gospel truth. So what exactly is this love that John so passionately talks about in this letter from first to last and insists that Christians have or should grow and mature in? We must learn it at some point and let it so engrain in our hearts that we never ever err or stray from the truth.
“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.” The character of love is sacrifice. In other words this is what love looks like. Jesus laid down his life for us. Who are we that he did so for us? Were we holy and righteous? Were we good and worthy? Were we innocent? Not at all. We were enemies of God, every one of us. We were hostile to God cared nothing for the Bible. We were sinners corrupted at heart and doing things we shouldn’t do, thinking things we shouldn’t think, feeling things we shouldn’t feel. Some of us grew up in hardship others in comfort. But as Paul says it best. “At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.” (Titus 3:3) We read in another place what God says to us: “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised. “‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” (Ezekiel 16:4-6) And this is what we were when he gave himself for us— when he sacrificed his Son for us.
And this is the kind of love he calls us to love with, the sacrificial love that transcends all human barriers of want and expectation, barriers of reciprocation, even barriers of reason and emotion— and simply love our brothers by laying down our lives for them even when they’re not worthy or deserve being loved.
If you are in Christ, born of God, your have love. But how is that love manifested? How do you love your God? How do you love your brother in Christ? How do you love the stranger? How do you love your enemy? Love is sacrifice. It is real. It is manifested in action. Just as God didn’t just tell us he loved us but he demonstrated it by giving us his own son, so also love demands that we sacrifice for him and for his cause. How then do you see your self loving God? Is it in words like the hypocrite who pretends to be in fellowship with God but there is no love manifested in him? Is it like the actor who acts as if he loves God but in his heart he loves the world? Or do you love through your sacrifices? What sacrifice do you make for the God whom you love? Do you serve him or his children? Do you serve his church or do you expect the church to serve you? Jesus said to Peter “Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Take care of my lambs.” (John 21:15-17) Why? Why did Jesus ask Peter to demonstrate his love in this way? Because serving his flock isn’t easy. It demands self denial and self sacrifice. Most Christians who are called to serve the flock shirk the responsibility excusing themselves that their gifts are elsewhere. But when we look to see if they are exercising their gifts elsewhere, we often see no evidence at all. When we love we have to love in a way that the Lord wills not in our own way. On the other hand, does someone claim to love you? How are they loving you? Do they love you with words or do they express their love with sacrifices? What sacrifice do they make on your behalf? Do they forgive? Do they bear? Do they serve? These are the questions every Christian should be examining their heart and challenging themselves with. Otherwise we fall into what we call abstract love. In Christianity there is no such thing as abstract love. Love is visible. It is alive. It is active. It is sacrificial. It goes as far as laying down itself for those it loves.
Read verses 17-18. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” John says that if we see a need and do not respond with sacrifice, how can the love of God be in us. It cannot. It should. John talks about the love that pities those in need. The love of God is characterized by pity for the underprivileged, for the suffering, for the unfortunate, for the needy and for the weak, and for all those who are helpless in their situation. That’s why God loves those who call on him in their helplessness, in their wretchedness, in their sinfulness. Who is likely to draw the love of God? Jesus already taught us who. “Blessed are the poor in spirit— Blessed are those who mourn— Blessed are the meek— Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” (Matthew 5:3-6) Why? Because God’s ear is ever on those who are needy and in their need cry out to him. And there are no needier people than those who lack spiritual food and drink, those who are still suffering under the yoke of sin and death, those who have not been given the good news of our Lord. That’s why the prophet tells us: “Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street.” (Lamentations 2:19) Triton student are starving. We must look at them with pity and love them as God loves them and pay for them and make opportunity to serve them with the gift of life. “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”