John has been teaching his readers about the hope they have in Christ. Those who abide in Christ have confidence and will not shrink back when Christ returns. When he appears, we shall be like him and we will see him as he is. This is the hope of those who are born of God. This hope is the motivation for our purification. We must clean out the filth in our lives and stop practicing sins because we see the amazing love the Father has given us so that we can be called children of God. John returns to the important topic of loving one another as a sign that we are living our lives in Christ. First John 3:11 stands as the thesis for this paragraph: “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
The Problem of Hating Our Brother (3:12-15)
John turns to the example of Cain and Abel to teach why we must love one another. Cain murdered his brother Abel, as recorded in Genesis 4. The reason why Cain killed Abel was because his own actions were evil while Abel’s actions were righteous. John provides us a simple explanation concerning Cain’s sacrifice and subsequent actions that are so widely speculated. Cain did not offer what God required in sacrifice and then killed his brother Abel because Cain was evil and Abel was righteous. We try to make so much more out of people sometimes rather than just taking the straightforward, simple point. Abel’s heart was right which led to obedience. Cain’s heart was wicked which led to his disobedience.
Therefore, do not be surprised that the world hates you. The world is going to hate you because your actions are righteous and their actions are not. Rather than see their own wickedness and repent, they hate those who expose their evil ways. The world is going to hate us because we are walking in the light and exposing darkness. We need to see what John has set up so that we can feel the gravity of his conclusions. Those who hate are of the world.
We know that we have passed from spiritual death to spiritual life when we love our brethren. How we treat each other and deal with each reveals where we stand in our salvation. You know that you have truly moved from the realm of darkness and sin to the realm of light and righteousness when we love each other. Loving others shows we have made the transition from being a child of the devil (3:10) to being born of God and a child of God. If we do not love, then we abide in death. We are staying in the place of being spiritually dead, separated from God and not in a relationship with God. This is a frightening application to the body of believers. When we mistreat each other, are not kind to each other, cause problems, are not sacrificing for each other, and putting others ahead of ourselves, we are showing that we are remaining in spiritual death. We are living with Christ, but are living in darkness, separated from God. Our actions tell everything about who are truly God’s and who are not. If we are not loving each other, then quite simply we are not cutting it. We are proving we are not his disciples.
John then makes the point even stronger in verse 15. If we do not love each other, then we are murderers. Let those heavy words sink into our hearts and minds. If we do not love one another, we are murderers. John concludes that obviously murderers do not have eternal life. Perhaps we think John is exaggerating or going a little overboard. But listen to the words of Jesus.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21–22 ESV)
Jesus made the very same connection. The religious leaders taught that if you murdered you would be liable to judgment. Jesus taught if you were angry with your brother you were liable to the judgment. What John and Jesus are teaching is that we are a bunch of murderers. We are killing our spouses, our children, our parents, and our brethren when we fail to love them with godly, sacrifice love. When we get angry with one another and refuse to show proper love, we are showing that we are not born of God and do not have eternal life.
One of the purposes of our community groups is to know each other better so we can love each other like John is commanding. There are many who are refusing to participate in these groups and I want to impress upon your heart why these are important gatherings. We must be around each other to love each other. We must know each other to love each other. As the writer of Hebrews declared, we stir each other up to love and good works when we are gathering together (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The Perfect Example of Jesus (3:16)
In contrast to the wicked act of Cain, John turns our attention to the perfect display of love found in Jesus. We know what love looks like when we look at Jesus. He laid down his life for us. This is the kind of love that John is talking about. We are not talking about saying that we love each other. We are not talking about having warm fuzzy feelings for each other. We are talking about sacrificing for each other. Children of the devil are self-consumed. Children of the devil do not give of themselves to others but always take. It is always about what others are doing for them, never about what they can do for others. We know what love looks like because we see in Jesus the perfect example of love. Jesus gave the same command:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12–15 ESV)
Love is the denial of self for another’s gain. You see this very principle in Jesus. Jesus denied himself so that we all could gain. This is the great commandment of God. Loving the Lord means that we deny ourselves for the glory of God. Loving others means we deny ourselves from the good and gain of others.
Love Practiced (3:17-18)
Love not just in what you say but in how you act. The practical example John gives is of a Christian who has material possessions, sees a brother in Christ in true need, and does not do anything about it. I do not want to take the teeth out of this passage, but I think we need to make some observations about what John is saying. John is not speaking about the people standing in the median who will not work. John is not talking about the guy looking for a handout so he can buy beer. John in this context is speaking about helping our Christian brethren, so we need to bear this in mind. Neither is John talking about someone who has continually chosen to be in need because of his refusal to work and lacks the ambition to work to provide for his family. Never forget Paul’s words when we talk about helping others: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8 ESV) John is not speaking about those claiming to be Christians but refuse to work at all or work enough to take care of their own needs. We also need to be aware that there are many in the world who know how to take advantage of Christians by claiming to be Christians even though their lives do not show this to be true. People will come and claim to love God but do not show that love by what they do. When Paul instructed who could be helped by the church, there were strict requirements that the widow have proven herself to abide in Christ. Picking up in the middle of Paul’s description, “having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” (1 Timothy 5:10 ESV) The point I want to make is that we are not talking about people who claim to be Christians but have shown themselves to be Christians.
Now that we have zeroed in on who John is talking about, let’s allow the strength of God’s word convict our hearts. If a brother or sister in Christ is found to be in true need, we as individuals are to do something about it. Notice that John does not pass this off to the church to first deal with the situation. You and I as individuals are responsible to share our goods with our brothers and sisters who experience true need. Love is the denial of self for another’s gain. We must sacrifice our material goods for the gain of the Christian in need. Compassion will lead to action. If our hearts are closed against our brother in need and we do not act to help, how can we think that God’s love is remaining with us? Love acts. We cannot say we love. We must show we love (cf. James 2:15).
Our Confidence In Christ (3:19-24)
John concludes this paragraph by encouraging our hearts and giving us further hope. In verse 19 John says we can know we are of the truth and have our hearts assured that we have eternal life. Verse 20 contains our first assurance. If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything. This is a precious truth. We can feel guilt from our sins even though we have come to Jesus and asked for forgiveness. Sometimes our consciences still bother us because we know we have done wrong. We know that we have not loved like we ought to have loved. We know that we are murderers because we have not sacrificed ourselves for each other. We know that we have fallen short. But John wants us to know that we can have our hearts assured. When we are walking in the light, confessing our sins, and turning to the Lord, God has promised to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Even after we have done these things, we will sometimes have days where our hearts still condemn us. We feel bad about our sins and failures. We beat ourselves up for not doing better. John wants us to know this precious truth. God is greater than our hearts. God knows us and forgives us even we seem to be unable to forgive ourselves. We can make decisions and take actions that affect our lives, affect the lives of our families, and the lives of others for years and years, generations and generations. These sinful decisions can weigh our hearts down. But God is greater than our hearts. He knows your repentance. He knows that you are loving him and striving to serve him. God knows that you are seeking him. God knows everything. He knows your passionate pursuit of him. God is greater than our condemning hearts. God is greater than our guilty feelings.
If our heart does not condemn us, then that is not a bad thing if we are walking in the light. We have confidence before God and we are supposed to have confidence before him. We are striving to be pleasing to God and therefore we confidently pray to God. We are keeping his commands and do things that are pleasing to God. God answers our prayers when we are walking down the right path.
Verses 23-24 summarizes these truths so that we can know we have eternal life and confidence before God. (1) We believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ. Our hope is in Jesus and we follow him alone. (2)We love one another, just as our Lord commanded us and showed us. Love is sacrificing ourselves for the gain of others. (3) We know that we are living and staying with God (abiding in him) because we are keeping his commands. We are not listening to ourselves, to the world, or to Satan. We are putting away the desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and the pride in lifestyle and following the desires of our Lord. (4) We have the Spirit of God to let us know that God abides in us and we in him. We have the full, complete revealed word of God that tells us what we must do to be pleasing to God. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit who guided the apostles into all truth, who wrote the mystery down so that when we read we can understand God’s will (cf. Ephesians 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:20-21).