Exploring what’s New about the “New” Commandment in the First Epistle of John (2)
In the previous article we looked at three things that John says in his first epistle concerning the commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us. We now continue that train of thought with five final comments. Continue reading . . .
In the previous article we looked at three things that John says in his first epistle concerning the commandment that we love one another as Christ has loved us. We now continue that train of thought with five final comments.
(4) This love is certainly an internal affection, a feeling of compassion, a desire for another to experience what is best and most beneficial. But it is far more than an internal passion. It is also the sort of love that expresses itself in external deeds of material, concrete kindness, the most explicit of which is a willingness to give one’s life for another. This we see in 1 John 3:16-18.
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone 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 talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).
Sadly, many are happy to say that they would lay down their life for another Christian brother or sister, precisely because they know they will never be required to do so. Here in the U.S. it is very rare indeed to find yourself in a situation where you are called on to literally lose your life physically so that another might live. But in third world countries where it is a crime to follow Jesus, this text rings all too true.
I say this because we all too often profess our willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for another believer at the same time we refuse to take them a meal when they are bedridden. We declare that we would happily give up our life but then do nothing to lend a hand or give a substantial amount of money when someone is weak and helpless and close to bankruptcy. That is why John says here in 1 John 3:17-18 that genuine, Christian, Christ-like love is more than a verbal declaration: it entails a practical communication of worldly resources to those in need.
Note the shift from the plural “brethren” in v. 16 to the singular “brother” in v. 17. We must be careful not to use “loving everyone in general” as an excuse for “loving no one in particular”!
(5) Christians are obliged to love one another because of the nature of God as love (1 John 4:7-8).
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
Although we are now and always will be human and will never ourselves become God, still by the power of the Holy Spirit the virtues and perfections of God's personality are to be reflected in how we think, feel, and act. God’s moral character is to be reproduced in us. Here John says that since true love is only from God, the one who manifests such love shows himself to have been born of God and to be one who truly knows God.
A Christian is one who has been born of God and thus received of his nature. God's nature is love. Hence whoever does not love shows that he has not been born of God and does not know him. The argument is plain and compelling:
“For the loveless Christian to profess to know God and to have been born of God is like claiming to be intimate with a foreigner whose language we cannot speak, or to have been born of parents whom we do not in any way resemble. It is to fail to manifest the nature of Him whom we claim as our Father ('born of God') and our Friend ('knoweth God'). Love is as much a sign of the new birth as is righteousness” (John Stott, 161).
(6) Don’t ever think that merely loving other Christians is enough, as if it can be separated from loving and trusting and believing in Christ himself. Today we often hear it said: “It doesn’t matter what you believe. It only matters that you love. As long as your belief is sincere and enables you to experience genuine authenticity in who you believe yourself to be, what you believe or whom you believe is irrelevant.” Now, what would Jesus have to say about this? We know the answer because John the apostle, who recorded for us the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35, provides us with this explanation:
“And this is his commandment [singular], that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
As far as John was concerned, the command to believe in Jesus and to trust him and to embrace him alone as the Savior of our souls is inseparable from the command that we love others who in like fashion embrace and trust Jesus as Lord and Savior. There is only one commandment. The word “commandment” here is singular. People won’t know you are a follower of Christ if you don’t profess and make known your belief in him. But neither will they know or care if you don’t love others in the way that he loved us. Your love for others provides concrete, visible, vocal proof that your trust in Christ is real and saving.
(7) In keeping with what Jesus himself said in John 13, we are to love one another because of the historical manifestation of that love in Christ’s death for us (1 John 4:9-11).
“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).
How do we know God loves us? Because he sent to us his Son, the most precious gift possible; not an angel, but his Son. The word “only” is sometimes rendered “only begotten.” It is monogenes (9x in the NT) and is better rendered “unique” or “one and only” (NIV). See Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb. 11:17. It is used 4x in John’s gospel (1:14,18; 3:16,18). The stress in each instance is on the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s one and only son (the word “begotten” is a poor rendering).
He sent his Son to die; not primarily to live or to teach or to exhort or to be an example but to die. He sent his Son to die for sinners (Rom. 5:6-8); not for righteous people or loving people or kind people or pretty people, but sinners. Listen again to how Jesus unpacked this truth in John 15:12.
“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” (John 15:12).
The love of Jesus for us was far more than a line in a speech, far more than a mission statement, far more than a verbal declaration. It was real and he meant it. He suffered in our place and in doing so took upon himself our guilt and the condemnation we deserved and thus satisfied the justice of God.
(8) We are to love others as Christ loved us because therein we see and know the abiding presence of God in us and the purpose of his love for us reaches its perfect consummation (1 John 4:12).
“No one has seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).
John says that “no one has ever seen God” (cf. 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16; Ex. 33:20; John 1:18). But if God cannot be seen, how then can he be known? In John 1:18 the answer is given: “the only God [a reference to Jesus], who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Fine, but why is such a theological declaration included at this point in John's argument? The answer is that
“the unseen God, who was once revealed in His Son, is now revealed in His people if and when they love one another. God's love is seen in their love because their love is His love imparted to them by His Spirit. . . . The words do not mean that when we begin to love, God comes to dwell in us, but the reverse. Our love for one another is evidence of God's indwelling presence” (Stott, 164).
In other words, although God cannot be seen in himself, he can be seen in those in whom he abides! The full height of God's love for us and the purpose for which it was manifested is perfected or achieved only when we love one another. John's point is that the ultimate end for which God's love as manifested in Christ was designed is not merely our salvation, but our love for one another. Loving one another as Christ loved us is evidence that “God abides in us,” that he lives in us and exerts his power in and through us, and equips and enables us to do what is utterly contrary to our nature apart from him.
So, how might we begin to love one another as Christ loved us?
• We love by forgiving each other as Christ forgave us.
• We love by serving one another in humility as Christ served his disciples by washing their feet.
• We love by generously giving to those in need from our financial and physical resources.
• We love by patiently bearing with one another when mistakes and immaturity are manifest.
• We love by deferring to one another in humility and seeking their best interests above our own.
• We love by speaking the truth in love, not by compromising simply because we fear they might be offended.
• We love by refusing to isolate ourselves from others but by seeking relationships of love and affirmation and encouragement in community.
• We love by always being willing to suffer inconveniences and interruptions in our schedules if that is what is called for to serve and help and encourage others.
• We love by not turning away from or scorning those who differ from us on secondary theological matters.
• We love by striving at all times to preserve the bond of the unity of the Spirit.
• We love by praying for one another.
• And above all else, we love by laboring in God’s grace to enable others to enjoy Christ as their supreme treasure.