A further family characteristic
“For this is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). These words at the opening of a new section make it evident that, in continuing his theme, John is keeping within the message which has been entrusted to him as an eye-witness with the other apostles. The same message that was outlined in chapter one, is now being enlarged upon so that its application to us may be more fully understood.
His emphasis up to this point has been upon God’s righteousness as a characteristic by which God’s children are to be recognised. Now, however, the subject changes from righteousness to love. The previous section concluded with a passing reference to this. “Whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (3:10). In that verse righteousness and love are brought together and John now calls our attention to the second characteristic which should be seen in those who are children of God, namely, love.
Love, a proof of divine life
We say again, wherever divine life resides it will manifest itself, John’s first emphasis was that it would be manifested by our being righteous “even as He is”. This should lead to our walking in the light, obeying Him, purifying ourselves, doing righteousness, and not continuing in sin (1:7; 2:3; 3:3; 3:7 and 3:9). Now, coming to the subject of love, John proceeds, “This is the message which ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (3:11). Concerning this matter of love, he says that this too is from the beginning. He has used this phrase so often, and when it occurs again here in connection with love of the brethren we are reminded by chapter two verses 7-10 that it is not something new. “No new commandment write I unto you …” (2:7).
From one angle the law of brotherly love has been binding upon the children of God from the beginning: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). It is as unchangeable as His word, Who is love. The debt of love can never be so paid that the obligation ceases.
“Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8). This debt continues with compound interest and binds the whole family ever more closely together. From another angle this law was invested with new light and power—“a new commandment” (2:8)—when the love of God was manifested in the gift of His Son.
We may say with truth that, as soon as we are born of God, we begin to love our brother in a new way. This is a feature of our Christian life from the beginning of our new creation. Furthermore, every advance made by us in the knowledge of Christ meets this old commandment with freshness of meaning and power.
In Greek there are three words for Love: (a) Eros, which, because it had come to have only a degraded and sensual meaning, is never used in the New Testament. (b) Phileo, to love, (with noun philo, a friend) which means affection, the friendliness of good-natured people, and which is used for the love between relatives or family members (e.g. Matt. 10:37); it is only rarely used of God as in Titus 3:4,5. ( c) Agapao, to love (with noun agape, love), is the word used of divine love. God is “Agape” Himself in veryessence. “God is love” (see chapter four verses 8 and 16). It is love in this high divine sense that is brought before us here: love as a proof of the divine life and as evidence of regeneration. So “love one another” means, in other words, be God-like, be Christ-like.
The only alternative to this is to be Cain-like: to be “as Cain”. “Cain was of the evil one” (3:12). Cain is not only an historical figure, but also a type of those in whom no divine life resides. In him there lurked suspicion, jealousy, and hatred that led to murder. His hatred was fed by the sense that his own works were inferior to his brother’s. The natural man cannot bear to think of another doing better than he. The love of God is not in him, therefore let us not be surprised if, like Cain, he is driven to hate us. “Marvel not my brethren if the world hateth you” (3:13). It is to be expected, for if this love is an essential proof of our being renewed in spirit, then clearly it cannot be found in men of the world.
“He that loveth not abideth in death”, whereas love therefore certifies that “we have passed out of death into life” (3:14). The fruit of the Father’s love for us is life, and the first breath of that life in us is love. Where jealousy and hate abide, there death reigns. How do we know that we have passed from death into life? Is it because we are fundamentalists? Is it because we are very accurate in our doctrine or theology? No, the evidence is found in the fact that we love the brethren in the divine sense. In our unconverted days we certainly did not like them. We resented their questions. We mistrusted their assurance. But he who does not love, hates, and he who hates makes it plain that he does not yet enjoy eternal life. That was our condition then.
Deeds demonstrate this love
How shall we know or measure this Love? As in the kindred matter of righteousness, so also here, the measure of it is Christ. “Hereby we know love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16). We cannot, of course, imitate the saving work of Christ; ‘but as His love gave all for us and ours, so must our love give all for Him and His.
But if such is the lofty standard by which our love is measured, how pitiable, says John, is the unloving heart that refuses to share the necessities of this passing world with poorer brethren. Let the polished hypocrisy of those who know not God be far from us. One day he who turns down God’s poor is going to be poor himself (perhaps not materially, but no less really) and in a time of need of some kind he will call upon God and find the heavens as brass. “Whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him?” (3:17).
Then immediately John goes on to mark this matter of love as the next great practical expression of the life which is in us. “My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth. Hereby shall we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our heart before him whereinsoever our heart condemn us” (3:18-20). “Hereby shall we know…” It is practical love of this kind that provides the evidence that we are in the truth. Moreover, true self-denying love begets in us a holy assurance. By it “we shall assure our heart before God.”
It is true, as John goes on to say, that “God is greater than our hearts and knoweth all things” (3:20). Though no doubt at first this divine insight into our hearts, like the light that first exposed our true condition (1:6,7), is a disconcerting thing, yet it is a blessed safeguard also. John’s important statement reassures us that what God knows about us He will take pains to reveal to us. His one blessed concern is that our love shall truly measure up to the standard of Christ.
“Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, we have boldness towards God; and whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep his commandments, and do the things that are pleasing in his sight” (3:21, 22). These words now introduce the subject of prayer which John will deal with again later. It is good to have boldness towards God, and specially when we pray. But if brotherly love is deficient, confidence too will be lacking, and if our hearts do not assure us but rather condemn us, how then can we pray with expectation? This verse is a great promise of answer to prayer, but it is a conditional one, as is evident from its last clause: “Because we keep his commandments, and do the things that are pleasing in his sight”. That which is pleasing to Him is again defined in 3:23: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another.” The greater our apprehension of Christ who is God’s standard, the greater will be its outworking in our love for the brethren.
As before, we are being tested by the message, in order that we may know ourselves and in order that our position may be a true and not a false one. The section concludes with verse 24: “He that keepeth his commandments abideth in Him, and He in him.” Obedience, as in other matters so in this matter of Love, is what gives assurance of our unclouded communion with Him, and the evidence, we are told, is that His Spirit is in us. This will be the subject of our next consideration.
Thus in chapter three the Holy Spirit through the apostle sets before us two proofs that give support to our Christian profession. They are the righteousness of God manifested in our acts of righteousness (3:7) and the love of God displayed in our love of the brethren (3:14).