Love: A Matter of Life & Death

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By John Piper About Loving Others
Part of the series Let Us Walk in the Light: 1 John

1 John 3:11-18

For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous. Do not wonder, brethren, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.

The thought that connects this paragraph that was just read and the preceding paragraph that we considered last week comes in 1 John 3:10. "By this it may be seen who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother." The first clause of that verse sums up the previous paragraph (3:4–10) in which John argued that a lifestyle of righteousness, or of not sinning, is the essential evidence of being a child of God, indwelt by the very seed of God (v. 9), increasingly sharing the nature of him in whom there is no sin (v. 5). On the other hand, a lifestyle of habitual, persistent, unrepentant sin is clear evidence of being not a child of God but a child of the devil, sharing the nature of him who has been sinning from the beginning (v. 8).

Shifting Gears from General to Specific

In the second clause of v. 10, however, John shifts gears and brings us into a discussion of the Christian's obligation to love his brother. Now John's transition from a discussion of righteousness in general to a discussion of love in particular should not catch us by surprise. It is not new to us. Already in chapter 2, John has followed the same pattern. In 1 John 2:3–6, John spoke in a general sense about keeping God's commandments and the assurance of knowing God that such obedience brings (v. 3). He ends this section by asserting that "he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way he walked" (v. 6). But how do we walk in the same way that he walked? Preeminently by walking in love. And so immediately in verses 7–11 of chapter 2 John shifts to a discussion of loving one's brother. It is on the one hand the old commandment which John's readers had heard from the beginning, while on the other hand it is a new commandment because its fulfillment belongs to the new age in which the true light is already shining.

Now again in chapter 3, John follows the same pattern. Last week in verses 4–10 of chapter 3, we considered John's discussion of righteousness and the way it serves to provide evidence of the new birth and of divine sonship. John spoke in general terms about not-sinning (vv. 6, 9) and about doing what is right (vv. 7, 10). But what exactly does it mean to do what is right? The answer is the same: doing what is right means loving your brother. Which is the theme of our passage now. The same flow of thought of chapter 2 is repeated in chapter 3. The apostle John writes in spirals, not in straight lines. He really has only a few major points in 1 John, but he keeps returning to them again and again and again, each time in different words, each time at a higher and higher level.

The Heart of the Apostolic Gospel

John begins his discussion of love in v. 11: "For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." The "for" at the beginning of this verse shows that in John's mind v. 11 is the ground or the reason for v. 10, or more specifically the reason for why he can shift from righteousness in general as a test of divine sonship to the specific test of love for the brethren. The reason he can make that shift is that the command to love one another was what his readers had heard from the beginning. The moral imperative for Christians to love one another was at the heart of the apostolic gospel. And it still is. From the very beginning, that is, from the very first time they heard the gospel, John's readers knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what God would expect and would empower them to do: love one another.

In 1 John 2:7, the love command is referred to by John as an old commandment which his readers had had from the beginning. This was not new for John's readers. It should not be new for us.

A Message Heard from the Beginning

The wording of v. 11 is striking. It is a very close parallel (almost word for word) with 1 John 1:5. There the message which John's readers had heard was a doctrinal one, the theological foundation for their faith that rests in the character of God. "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all" (1:5). Now in our verse today (3:11) the message they had heard from the beginning was equally foundational, but now not in the realm of doctrine, but of ethics. "For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another." The doctrinal foundation that God is light and the moral, ethical foundation of love for one another are both at the heart of the apostolic gospel. The gospel is incomplete unless it includes both doctrine and ethics.

Doctrine is of the essence of the gospel—doctrine about the character of God; about human sin; about the mediator, Jesus Christ, who is the God-man; about his life, death, and resurrection to forgive the sins of his people and give them eternal life; about the need for a personal response of faith to appropriate the work of Christ into one's own life. But it is equally true that the essence of the gospel includes the moral imperatives of repentance and of a new life of love lived under the lordship of Christ and empowered by his Spirit. And any gospel you believe, any gospel you proclaim that does not include both doctrine and ethics is only half a gospel, tragically incomplete, radically distorted, hopelessly deficient. Both doctrine and ethics are at the heart of the gospel because they are so inextricably linked. The character of God, who as light is wholly righteous, true, and loving, demands and empowers moral responses on the part of his children. Supremely these moral responses are to be ones of love. Our love for one another is demanded by the character of God, but it is also empowered by the brightness of the God who is light and love, with whom there is no small print. Only when we see and believe and cherish the brightness of God, will we be free to entrust ourselves and our futures into his hands. And then and only then will we be free to forget about ourselves in order to genuinely love someone else.

Biblically speaking, doctrine and ethics always go together. And in both cases, both in doctrine and in ethics, our need is not for something new. That's what the false teachers in John's day were trumpeting. They were the ones with the new revelations. They were the ones with the latest ideas. They were the ones who were modern, progressive, "with-it." They were infatuated with newness. But according to John that isn't what we need at all. What we need, which is what his readers needed, is to go back to what we have heard from the beginning. John's command in 2:24 applies to us in terms of ethics as well as doctrine, "Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you."

How Hearing the Command Might Work Against You

But the very fact that we have heard the command to love one another from the beginning can work against us. I would guess that 95% of you have heard this command hundreds of times. You've heard it from parents, Sunday School teachers, Bible study leaders, preachers; you've read it yourself from the Bible many times. And the danger that can rise for all of us is the temptation to stop thinking about love. After all, we've heard that before, we say to ourselves. We already know that we're supposed to love each other. Let's not spend our time thinking about such basic things. Let's get on to more advanced, more important things. That's a temptation we all face as Christians, and the tragic result of giving in to it is that we often spend little or no time thinking about the meaning or implications of the biblical command to love one another.

Well John won't let us get away with such tragic rationalizations, and I'm going to do my best this morning to not let you get away with them either. John has some very important things to say to us about love, things we desperately need to hear, especially living, as we do, in a culture that is so confused and mixed-up about what love really is.

Two Main Headings

I would like to sum up the rest of John's teaching in vv. 12–18 under two main headings. They are

  1. the evidence of love, or what love proves, and
  2. the essence of love, or what it really is.

John speaks of the evidence of love in vv. 14–15, and sandwiching those verses on either side comes John's teaching about the essence of love. This teaching comes to us in the form of two contrasting pictures, a negative and a positive example, if you will. Verses 12–13 show us the negative example, Cain, who in his hatred and ultimate murder of his brother Abel is the prototype of the world. His example, John says, is not at all to be followed by Christians. The positive example comes in verses 16–18. That is Jesus Christ, whose example of self-sacrificial love is to be imitated and followed by us as his disciples.

1. The Evidence of Love

Let's look first at the evidence of love vv. 14–15:

We know that we have passed out of death unto life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

The Proof of Spiritual Life

What does a lifestyle of love prove? In word, life-spiritual life, eternal life, the life of God himself. Or to be more precise, a lifestyle of love gives strong and sure evidence that we have passed out of death into life. That's John's conviction about the nature of a Christian. A Christian is one in whom a resurrection has occurred, a spiritual resurrection in union with Christ "out of death into life." In 1 John 2:10 love was the sure evidence of a Christian's abiding in the light. Here in 3:14, love is the surest test of having life. The contrary is also true. "He who does not love abides in death," just as he is "in darkness" according to 2:9, 11. In the vocabulary of John, love, light, and life belong together as do hatred, darkness, and death.

Either Love or Murder

John's argument for his last assertion in v. 14 ("He who does not love abides in death") comes in v. 15. "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer." Now note the shift in terminology that takes place. In v. 14 John speaks about "not loving" and in v. 15 he speaks about hating. It is very important for us to see how John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, equates the two. John is very black and white. He allows for no middle ground: you either love someone or you hate them. As much as you or I might like to try, we cannot sit on the fence and say, "I don't love that person, but I don't hate him either." John won't let us say that. Not loving is hating. And hate is tantamount to murder. "Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer".

In equating the hater and the murderer John is faithfully reflecting the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21ff.). This is no exaggeration. It shows Jesus' supreme concern for what goes on in the human heart. Hatred is the wish that another person was not there; it is the refusal to recognize his rights as a person; it is the longing to hurt or ultimately even to kill him. If I hate somebody, I am no different from a murderer in my attitude toward him. And with God it makes very little difference whether I actually have a chance to carry out the desires of my heart or not. People who hate are murderers according to Jesus and according to John and "you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." John is not denying the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for the sin of murder. The thief on the cross is an example that that can and does happen. What John is stating is the general principle that to take life is to forfeit life and no murderer has eternal life as a present and abiding possession.

A Special Responsibility to Christians

Now one more shift in terminology occurs in these verses that we need to note. In v. 14a John speaks about loving the brethren, while in v. 14b he speaks of not loving, period. The generalized form of the last clause should warn us against limiting our obligation to love to just our Christian brothers and sisters. Yet the strong and repeated reference to loving the brethren (vv. 10, 14, 15, 16) and loving one another (v. 11), plus the fact that John addresses his readers in v. 13 as "brethren," the only time in the letter when he uses that form of address (all the other times he addresses them as "Beloved," "Children," or, "Little Children")—all of these seem to point to a special responsibility we have as Christians to love and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not an exclusive responsibility, to be sure—we are commanded to love our neighbor, that is, all men and women. But it is a special responsibility, as Paul expressed in Galatians 6:10, "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are in the household of faith."

Let us sum up, then, this section on the evidence of love. Lifestyles of love and hate (and I say lifestyles because all these verbs are in the present tense, and as you remember from last week, present tense verbs in Greek denote ongoing, continual activity) are very revealing. Specifically they reveal whether one abides in death or whether he has indeed passed out of death into life. People who persistently and consistently love other people in heartfelt ways that are practical and sacrificial—all those people and only those people—can have assurance that they indeed possess the eternal life of God himself. Brothers and sisters, loving one another is not a trivial thing; it is not optional. Loving one another is critically important, eternally important. It is a matter of life and death.

2. The Essence of Love

But if love is so important, we need to know what it is so we can practice it. And John gives us great help here, for he proceeds in some detail to spell out the essence of love. As we saw earlier, he does so by contrasting an example of hatred, Cain, with the supreme example of love, Jesus Christ. Let's look first at Cain and see the kind of person we are not to be like.

The Example of Cain

Verse 12: "[We should love each other] and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother." According to Genesis 4:18, Cain murdered his brother Abel after Abel's sacrifice of the first born of his flock was accepted by God, while his own sacrifice of the fruit of the ground was not. According to Hebrews 11:4 Abel's sacrifice was acceptable to God because it was done in faith. Cain's sacrifice evidently was not. And Cain's lack of faith led to hatred for his brother which rose and rose until it finally issued forth in murder, a brutal murder. The Greek word literally means to "cut his throat" and could be translated "slaughtered" or "butchered." And for John that murder was evidence that Cain was of the evil one. Cain, sharing the nature of the devil, who, according to Jesus in John 8:44, "was a murderer from the beginning."

And why did Cain kill his brother? Not because Abel was evil, but just the reverse. According to the end of v. 12, Cain murdered Abel "because his own deeds were evil and his brother's righteous." What was the motive for Cain's murder? Jealousy, envy. Jealousy is a common motive for hatred and for murder. In the movie Amadeus it was jealousy that moved Salieri to hate and to ultimately try to kill Mozart, jealousy over his superior musical gifts. But Cain's jealousy was not of this type. It was jealousy not over another's superior gifts, but over another's superior righteousness. It was the same jealousy that caused the Jewish leaders to crucify Jesus, the same jealousy that moved Saul of Tarsus to persecute Christians. John expresses it this way in John 3:19–20:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.

The light of Abel's righteousness (by faith—Hebrews 11:4) and God's acceptance of him revealed the darkness and sinfulness of Cain's own heart. And that was very, very threatening to him. And unless the Spirit of God has made you a very humble person, your instinctive response in that kind of threatening situation will be like Cain's, to lash out against the one whose righteousness has revealed the bankruptcy of your own soul. That's what happened to Cain. The devil inspired jealousy within his heart; his jealousy gave rise to hatred; and his hatred issued forth in murder. And John presents Cain to us as the model of the world. The "world," that is, humanity aligned in rebellion against God, is Cain's posterity and it will continue to respond to righteousness in the same way he did. Therefore, says John in v. 13, "Do not wonder that the world hates you." We should not be surprised if the world hates us as Christians. After all, the same devil who inspired Cain to hate and ultimately murder Abel has the world in his grip.

The Example of Christ

But we, as Christians, are not to be like Cain. Rather we are to be like Christ, whom John sets forth for us in v. 16 as the great positive portrait of love. "By this we know love, that he [that is, Christ] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for his people reveals to us what love is all about ("By this we know love . . . "), and it provides us with the supreme example we are to follow ("we [also] ought to lay down our lives for the brethren").

Three Reasons Jesus Death Is the Supreme Example of Love

Now I would like to suggest to you three reasons why Jesus' death on the cross should serve as the supreme example of love for us.

1. It Involved the Greatest Possible Sacrifice

First of all, it involved the greatest possible sacrifice. Christ gave up his very life for us. Love takes so much joy in another person's welfare that it is willing, eager, delighted to sacrifice one's own personal well-being for the good of the other person. Now a person's life is his most precious possession. To rob him of it, which is murder, is the greatest possible sin you could ever commit against him. By the same token, to give one's own life for the sake of another's is the greatest possible expression of love for him. You remember what Jesus said in John 15:13: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down hi—s life for his friends." It is a sharp contrast that John paints for us. Cain's hatred issued forth in murder. Jesus' love issued forth in self-sacrifice, even to the point of giving up his very life for us.

2. It Meets Our Deepest Needs

Second, and more importantly, Christ's death on the cross is the supreme example of love in that it meets our needs in a way that nothing else ever could. It is not only the greatest possible sacrifice, it also does the greatest possible good for us. The key words in v. 16 are "he laid down his life for us." You see, self-sacrifice in and of itself is not intrinsically valuable. Self-sacrifice becomes love only to the extent that it is positively related to human need. Only insofar as self-sacrifice works for the good of another does it have any value in the eyes of God. I think that is what Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians 13:3, "If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned [there's self-sacrifice to be sure] but have not love [that is, the self-sacrifice is not directed to meeting the needs of anyone else], I gain nothing." But Christ's love for us is exceedingly positive. (True love always is.) It moved him to lay down his life for us. Again there is a sharp contrast. In Genesis 4:8 we read, "Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him." In 1 John 3:16 we read, "[Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us." And in those prepositions, the "against" of Genesis 4:8 as compared to the "for" of 1 John 3:16, we find the difference between love and hate, between life and death. The death of Jesus Christ is the supreme example of love because it meets our deepest needs—it brings us peace with God, forgiveness, a clear conscience, hope for the future, power to love in the present, etc., etc. It does the greatest possible good for us.

3. It Had the Greatest Possible Motive

But not only does Jesus' death embody love because it was the greatest possible sacrifice done for the greatest possible good. It was also done for the greatest possible motive. According to John 12:28 Jesus went to the cross in order to glorify the name of his heavenly Father. And the writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross "for the joy set before him" (Hebrews 12:2). These two inextricably linked goals—the glory of God and our own delight and joy in it—are to be the supreme motive for any act of love. They were for Jesus, and they are to be for us.

A Definition of Christian Love

Combining these three elements, then, we can come up with this definition of Christian love. Christian love is finding one's own joy in actively working for the joy of another, even at the self-sacrificial cost of one's own private pleasure, all for the glory of God. And that is the kind of love we are to possess as Christians and the kind of love we are to exercise.

How We Can Love Others in Christlike Ways

Verse 16b: "We ought to lay down our lives for the brethren." There is an "oughtness" to it. This is the moral imperative of love that is at the very heart of the gospel. We ought to reflect for others the same kind of love that Jesus had for us. We ought to delight so much in doing them good that we are willing to give up our very lives for them.

But as you know, not many of us will have the opportunity to die for one another. But what we all have constantly are opportunities to demonstrate Christlike love in lesser, more nitty-gritty ways—like sharing our possessions with those in need. Verse 17 brings Christian love down to earth in a hurry, and it places Christian love squarely in the midst of everyday life. "If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

Having "the World's Goods"

Two conditions are given in v. 17, which place a Christian under an inescapable obligation to help his brother in need, to be a Good Samaritan. They are, first, having "the world's goods." The word translated "goods" is the Greek word, "bios," the same word John used in 1 John 2:16 to refer to "the pride of life (bios)" which is of the world. The word refers to the resources needed for life in this world. And according to John these resources, this "bios," can either be a source of pride or a vehicle of love.

Seeing Your Brother in Need

The second condition referred to in v. 17 is that of seeing your brother in need (either with your own eyes or with the eyes of others—such as missionaries, the media, etc.). John's point is that if both conditions are met, if you behold a need in your brother's life and if you have resources to meet that need, you cannot stand idly by. If you do, if you "close your heart against [your brother]," if you have no pity in your heart for him, if you take no action to meet his need, the conclusion is obvious. God's love isn't in you. God's love to you cannot be bottled up, contained. It will inevitably flow out of you. And therefore John can assert that if there is no outflow, it is evidence that there has been no inflow.

Let Us Love in Deed and Truth

Verse 17 brings Christian love down to the nitty-gritty of everyday life, does it not? It means sharing your material resources with those in need, be it spiritual or physical need. And even those of you who are on the most limited income have something to share. Perhaps with individuals directly, or through the church, or through agencies such as CES or other mission agencies. But the point is clear. How can we say that we are willing to lay down our lives for our brothers if we are unwilling to part with our money for their sake? Verse 17 means sharing your time with others in need. Many times that's what a person needs far more than he needs money. It takes time to be a friend; it takes time to talk, to listen, to relieve loneliness. And for many of us it is harder to part with our time than with our money. That's where the heart of the battle is for me. My guess is that's where the heart of the battle is for many of you as well. But if you or I close our hearts with respect to time towards a brother or sister in need, how can God's love be in us?

Verse 17 can also mean sharing spiritual resources with a person in need through a word of encouragement or exhortation from the Bible and through consistent intercessory prayer. And in many cases the sacrifice demanded is greatest at this point. The spiritual battles are very real and very intense, the spiritual energy required is staggering, but the rewards are rich and the glory abounding to the name of God is very, very great.

All of this is love. And a consistent lifestyle of heartfelt love that is practical, sacrificial is what God expects of his children. And this lifestyle of love is what God empowers in each of his children through his Spirit. Loving one another is not unimportant for us as Christians. It is indeed a matter of life and death. Our lives loving one another with Christlike love will be lives of joy as we experience the truth of Jesus' words that it is more blessed to give than to receive. They will be lives of assurance as we find solid evidence that God has indeed by his grace brought us out of death into life. They will be lives of enriching the lives of others. And they will be lives that bring great glory to God, for they will cause others to see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. And so, brothers and sisters, I close in the same way John closes this section—with a word of exhortation: "Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth."

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