Simon Bowkett's Podcast

1 John 3:11-18 - 'The loving thing'?

May 14, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Simon Bowkett's Podcast
1 John 3:11-18 - 'The loving thing'?
Show Notes Transcript

            •          Introduction

Confession time: I get a bit fed up of being told that Christianity is all about love and that it’s central claim on us is to ‘do the loving thing’.

I’d go so far as to say that most of the major errors we find in Christian doctrine and ethics in Western culture at this point in human history arise from justifying things the Bible says are wrong against this particular standard of ‘the loving thing to do’.

You see, what so often happens when people use that sort of defence of things that God’s Word says are reprehensible, is that they are working from a particular definition of love that they’ve created in their own imaginations.

They mistake what love is.

John addresses that in these verses in 1 John 3:11-18.

More seriously again, and secondly, when people use that sort of defence against the calling out of sin, they fail to recognise that Christian love is the EXPRESSION of salvation, the fruit or the product of salvation, not its CAUSE.

Now, I don’t want to jump any guns here but I’m going to say that 1 John 3:11-18 leads us by a pretty well-worked route to the resolution of some serious contemporary misunderstandings about all this … as in this passage John deals with this central issue of love as one of the three authenticating signs of genuine Christian faith.

John invites us first of all at the foundation of all he is about to say, to consider the original and authentic Christian message … what IS it?

         •        The original and authentic message, v. 11

V. 11 “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another”.

The crucial verb in the text here is ἀγαπάω

It means, ‘to love’ …

And that kicks off a whole can of worms in our contemporary thought-world.

You see, you may well hear things that are detailed in God’s Word as sin being described in our society as one or even good because it’s ‘the loving thing’.

We hear the question raised’: How can anyone say that ‘love’ is wrong?’

There’s lots of that sort of talk about at the moment.

Well, this all has its origins in Joseph Fletcher and his philosophy … referred to (after the title of his seminal work) as ‘Situation Ethics’.

Situation Ethics has four principles for determining what is the ‘right’, the ethical, thing to do.

Firstly it must be ‘Pragmatic’ - the ‘most loving thing to do’ must be practical - that is possible to do and able to work.

It can’t be just a fluffy idea.

Secondly there’s the principle of ‘Relativism’ … by which Fletcher means that ‘the most loving thing to do’ must not just follow the rule because there will be situations where breaking the rule is ‘the most loving thing to do’ (he says).

Thirdly, there’s the principle of ‘theological positivism’.

Fletcher thinks his situation ethics is fundamentally Christian because it relies on the principle taught by Jesus to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ … a partial quotation of the Lord’s response when asked a question by a teacher of the Law (Matthew 22:35-37) ““Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.”

Do you see what Fletcher does there?

The Lord says to love God (first) and also love your neighbour as yourself.

The scribe asked for the (one) greatest commandment and Jesus replied quoting BOTH Deuteronomy 6:5(the shema) and Leviticus 19:18 … but making clear that the command to love God comes first.

Fletcher goes for the love your neighbour part and makes that the highest ethical imperative which all others must serve.

He actually says that we must ‘have faith’ that ‘love’ is the highest principle, then work out the rest on the basis of pragmatism as to how much it is served by the priority of loving your neighbour.

It is a man-centred not a God centred approach to ethics and it misquotes Christ to get us there.

The fourth principle in Situation Ethics is Personalism.

This explicitly puts mankind at the centre of the ethics universe as it says the person comes first and the law or the rule are only there to secure the maximally loving outcome for the person.

Moreover, Fletcher says that ἀγάπη (agapé) is the only moral principle to be followed, meaning that securing the maximum HAPPINESS of our fellow human beings is the thing to do.

Of course, the literature around Situation Ethics gets a LOT more complicated than that but this is what it boils down to and it explains where the thought comes from that underlies all this ‘it’s the loving thing to do’ justification of sin in our society.

So please notice here that v. 11’s “For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another”

arises in the context of vv. 7-10

“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8 The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. 9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. 10 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 God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”

Do you see that?

1 John retains the Lord’s emphasis in Matthew 22:35-37 where the Lord reminds the teacher of the Law who asked Him this tricky question that there are two tablets to the Law God gave Moses on Mount Sinai, that the first tablet relates to our responsibility to God and the second to our responsibility to our fellow man.

‘Love God’ come first … and what that involves is spelled out clearly for us with no talk of over-riding that what the situation says it would be ‘more loving’ to do something else

‘Love your neighbour’ come on the second tablet of the Ten Commandments (commandments, not suggestions open to variation and re-interpretation) and there’s the detail of what that looks like spelled out for us there too in how we should behave towards one another.

“For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another” 

And THAT is the loving thing to do because the God Who is love designed that His people should have the most loving thing done for them and He also sets out how this can be achieved in His Word for His world, which is the blueprint for running His creation well, starting with the Ten Commandments and working out from there.

This love, writes John, is the original and therefore the authentic message that both he (John) and the believers he is writing to have both heard and received.

There’s such a lot in this book to suggest that its first readers were well-acquainted with the Old Testament, and the illustration John gives of the principle he’s just laid down as his ‘topic’ for the section bears that out … he go straight to Cain who slew Abel in Genesis 4.

         •        The woeful example of Cain, vv. 12-13

Now, the main idea of this passage in 1 John is going to be so say that (as Karen Jobe puts it) “The distinguishing difference between children of God and children of the devil is love for God and others, defined here to be a compassionate response to the life-sustaining needs of others.”

Just as God’s love motivated GOD’s action to bring life to those who would be His children (3:1), so God’s authentic children reflect that love by having life-giving compassion for others.

And if these people John writes this letter to are as steeped in the Old Testament as we think they are, then they’ll surely identify strongly with this stark example of the failure of life-giving compassion in the infamous example of Cain.

Cain was a villain whose name they’d rapidly identify as a ‘boo-word’!

“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.”

As the first murderer in the Biblical history of humanity, Cain came to be seen as the archetypical sinner.

Interestingly, though, Cain is also mentioned in Jude 11 to make reference to false teachers because they ‘have taken the way of Cain’

In his small commentary on 2 Peter and Jude, Michael Green explains that Cain “stands for the cynical, materialistic character who defies God and despises man. He is devoid of faith and love.”

And for that reason, Cain personifies the lawlessness John has been writing about in vv. 4-10.

It seems particularly apt to raise Cain with these people John is writing to:

Cain and Abel were brothers … as were the people in those house churches, brothers in the faith.

But even though Cain and Abel were brothers there was no shared family resemblance … Cain was of the evil one but Abel’s offering was accepted by God.

Cain’s behaviour revealed what he was … as did the conduct of some of the people who showed up for church in that small group around Ephesus.

You see, killing his brother was the result of the pattern of thinking that lay deep at the roots of Cain’s heart.

·       Cain KNEW that Abel had offered to God what was right … from the right motives and the right faith too.

·       But Cain resented Abel for his brother’s righteousness and that carried over into a very hateful impulsive action.

And these basic instincts were showing up in the churches John addresses.

To these churches John writes that someone embodying these traits shows that they’re not walking with God but with the devil … John is very direct in his language about it.

·       Some of the brothers and sisters in these churches were living rightly before the Lord … the way Abel did.

·       But some were not and instead of repenting were still trying to justify their wrong beliefs and practices … as vv. 6-10 indicate.

This amounted to hate because trying to turn people from the right way to disobey God or to believe false things about Him is NOT a loving thing to do because it will have consequences for those people you are trying to sway!

On the contrary, doing that is an attempt to put them in a place where they will be in spiritual jeopardy!

Someone who tries to do that is not of God and in John’s theology that means they are of the world, of the flesh and of the devil.

And people in that position will hate the believer the way the devil does, so John writes (v. 13) “Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.”

These people who may be in your own church meeting but following a very different path are characterised as ‘the world’ here and just as Cain hated Abel because Abel was in the right with God, so these people will hate those who refuse to be swayed by these people’s justifying their sins and errors rather than repenting of them.

That is the woeful example of Cain for you, right there!

And it feels BAD when people are like that towards you.

Awful if it’s people in church that are doing it.

So John moves straight on in vv. 13-15 to contrast with this experience the assurance that a heart of love brings.

         •        The assurance love brings, vv. 13 - 15

Vv. 14-15 “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. 

Anyone who does not love remains in death. 

15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”

Now we know that John is having to put a shot across the bows of these house churches around Ephesus because they have got what you might call ‘false brethren’ among them.

You know that lovely parable of the seed and the Sower and the four types of ground the seed falls into?

Yes … well … that’s the Lord Jesus warning future generations that when it comes to apparent followers of Jesus, not all that glitters is gold!

And the experience of the early church which followed on from those days of the Lord’s earthly ministry … an experience which gets the window to it opened by the epistles following on after the gospels … is full of the apostles dealing with these false brethren.

In Galatians 2:4 Paul recounts how he had to deal with a particular incident:

“… not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. 4 This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. 5 We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”

And the seriousness of the threat of such things on another occasion is evident from 2 Corinthians 11:26where Paul writes of having been in danger from these ‘false brethren’.

They are a threat to the church and to the cause of God … and it is a major function of this book - 1 John - to urge the readers to be discerning of those who are true and those who are false WITHIN the gathering of God’s people.

Now John knows you have to be very careful how you set about doing that, because it is the consciences sensitised by the Spirit of God (the genuine believers) who are going to feel that most acutely and go off into soul-searching whenever you raise the issue, and it is the hardened hearts that will be … just even more hardened.

So, John is teaching what he needs to here from the perspective of what it is that should speak assurance to your soul that you are saved … and he goes around and around the cycle of these three criteria: obedience to God, love for the brethren and sound doctrine.

And here he refers to the assuring character of the real warmth you sense when you are in the company of faithful, God-praising people:

v. 14a ““We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. “

There’s the positive, reassuring statement of the truth for believers.

But then again, John knows that people who are hardened hearing this will be made worse so for them he doubles back and presents the other side of the coin:

V. 14b “Anyone who does not love remains in death.”

Yes, John is the Apostle of Love but sometimes to be actually loving, love has to be tough!

Now, let’s be clear about this, genuine human love is the fruit and expression of salvation, not the cause of salvation.

You are NOT saved because you love, but if you are saved then the love of God that you experience changes your outlook from one of resentment and self-righteousness to an attitude produced by consciousness of our own sinful failure and God’s grace.

The grace the believer experiences is life-changing, God-induced personal life transforming stuff.

·       It’s not only about a ‘love that will not let me go’.

·       It is about a love that simply can’t leave me the same.

It is NOT the experience nor the outlook of Cain … John raises that motif again:

V. 15 “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”

And before you rebel against the idea and take refuge in the notion that John is just going to extremes here for rhetorical effect, let me remind you that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-22) the Lord Himself teaches: “‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

And that’s what happens for just being angry!

In 1 John 2:9 John writes: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”

In 1 John 2:11 he develops the idea:

But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.”

In 1 John 3:11 he has warned us that contrastingly there is nothing unnatural in the world organised in its resistance to God, His ways and people hating the believers around Ephesus way:

Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.”

Of course not - that’s natural - they hated the Lord Jesus (especially the very religious ones amongst them) and they’ll hate you!

And then, after the current verse, John goes on to round out this teaching in 1 John 4:20: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. 

For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Here’s a big old theme then, in John’s book, and it’s a natural one.

It’s natural because there’s profound disagreement in these little house fellowships and it is all too easy for grace not to be prioritised in a situation like that.

People get to entrenched positions and once they are in their trenches, they get busy bombing one another.

Here’s the thing:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Now throwing something like that into a situation like this is bound to throw up the question: ‘but what does love mean?’

         •        What IS love? Vv. 16-17

John is a great preacher … anticipating the questions and answering them just as they arise!

Vv. 16-18 “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 and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

This John is NOT going to settle for sentimental love.

Not at all.

It isn’t sentimental, mushy love you see at Calvary.

It is the costly, sacrificial, proportionate to need stuff that underlies and PAYS for Biblical ἀγάπη.

If the Christian’s attitude is to be transformed by their experience of the love of God, then Calvary’s love is the love that influences you and forms you

So you want to know what the love the Christian mirrors looks like you look to Calvary and THAT sort of love is the sort of love that gets formed in you.

The sort of love that says … or rather DOES … I will NOT have this thing I want to get, so that you might have just what it is that you need.

What goes on here is that John makes clear he wants his readers to love one another in the way the Lord defines and exemplifies love … not the way the world around us does.

As the Lord says in John 10:11, He is the Good Shepherd Who lays down His life for the sheep.

And so He does!

But … let’s be clear about shepherds dying for their sheep.

It isn’t often the optimal situation.

On 16th. February 2020, farmer Faye Russell sprang into action when a neighbour called to say some sheep and lambs were at risk during the torrential downpours they were having that day.

The 26-year-old farmer put a long rope around her waist, handed it to the neighbour, and jumped into the freezing water … and plenty of us were left thinking ‘if you’re not swift water rescue accredited that;’s irresponsible’!

Well, it possibly was but she got her sheep out.

The thing is, this wasn’t an optimal situation, not least because it is probably best in most circumstances that the shepherd should not end up giving their life for their sheep!

Who’d feed the sheep tomorrow?!

It’s sadly far from unheard of for there to be farming accidents involving shepherds looking after their sheep.

But more routinely, caring for their sheep means there’s not time or money for that hair do, those new clothes, that trip to the theatre, or the opera, or the pub when your mates are going.

And that’s how this phrase to ‘lay down one’s life’ is used elsewhere in Greek, where it refers to taking a risk for another, even hazarding life for someone but not laying it down in sacrificial death.

And John goes on in the next verse to expound what he’s saying based on this definition of what the term means.

V. 17 “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

So here it is.

Here’s what love is in the church context … or more accurately this is what love LOOKS like … it is to make sure that your brother and sister has what they stand in need of.

Now there is NO suggestion that my neighbour is my own ‘tribe’ … the parable of the Good Samaritan puts paid to that (as does the Lord’s instruction to love even your ENEMIES in Matthew 5:43-48).

But here John is addressing directly the tensions in their church context.

Now, in 1 John 2:16, John warned his readers against becoming so secure and prideful in worldly wealth to forget their dependence on God.

So, logically, he builds off that platform to be careful they don’t see their brethren in dire need and take no action to provide for their need.

Everything we have to our name comes from His hand, so to withhold the resources of life that are in our hand from someone in need is to block Gods’s channel of provision for them.

And if the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God (giving it all we’ve got and loving our neighbour as ourself) then to show this practical love and care is clearly the greatest fulfilment of God’s purposes for us.

I’m conscious that a number of church leaders in Wales have in recent months being writing that Ministers should have nothing to do with what they call ‘mercy ministries’ but confine themselves to preaching salvation, but frankly they’re going to have a problem with 1 John with that line of reasoning.

John’s argument is that love expressed through making sure your needy have enough is the touchstone, one of three authenticating features of Biblical Christianity!

So as John concludes this section of his sermon we read in v. 18 …

         •        Conclusion - Love in Truth, v. 18

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

John closes out this section of his book dealing with the touchstone characteristic of genuine Christianity … love for the brethren.

He marvelled over the Father’s love that we should be His children, and then moved forward from there to say that His children should reflect this family characteristic of love.

This reflected love is the keystone of John’s ethics, the kind of love that got deeper than feelings and words into the willingness to act which reflects the Lord’s own love that was willing to act on the Cross at Calvary.

·       Firstly, this means that love is not expressed in feelings and sentiments but in actions.

·       Equally, this deeds are done ‘in truth’.

Karen Jobes comments: “The words and acts of the believer must be consistent with the spiritual truths God has revealed in Christ (e.g., that sin is serious enough for Jesus to have died for it). Loving others in acts consistent with the Gospel is how the believer returns the love they have received from God in Christ.”

I. Howard Marshall puts the matter well for our times considering he was writing his commentary in 1995:

“Most people associate Christianity with the command to love, and so they think that they know all about Christianity when they have understood its teaching in terms of their own concept of love.”

No wonder then, is it, that John’s readers then, Howard Marshall’s readers in 1995 and our generation now need a lesson on what love is and why it is important!

Love in the Bible shows up as doing what is needed to take care of the needs of others.

That doesn’t EXCLUDE warm feelings or expressions, but it does mean that consistent, authentic Christianity lives in a way that considerately responds to the needs of those around the in ways that possibly (for example) haven’t been prominent durn the COVID pandemic of recent times.

So Karen Jobes concludes: “It means making life sustaining resources available to meet the needs of those in dire circumstances - providing clean water, food, clothing, shelter, and of greatest importance, the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Lord brings people into the world with the intent that they will have what they need in His world to sustain life … water, clothing, food, shelter and so forth.

But God’s love for them gets channelled to them through His children who are willing because of His grace to them to share their more abundant resources with the people who have needs.

We need to continue to be vigilant about our consumption of what we mistakenly call ‘our’ resources, and to steward those resources in the reflection of the love of God that we have come to know.

That is how consistent Christianity shows itself.